The story of Kailua's only modern speakeasy starts across the Pacific in San Diego.


When Josh VanEmmerik was finishing up business school at University of San Diego, the Oahu native knew he wanted to do something in hospitality. He had worked at Terranea, the luxury eco-resort in Los Angeles, and gravitated toward the food and beverage industry.

His final year in school, he moved to San Diego's downtown Gaslamp neighborhood, home to the Padres baseball stadium and a wealth of bars and restaurants. There he discovered Prohibition and Noble Experiment, two speakeasy-style bars with hidden entrances and strong craft cocktail programs.

"I fell in love with the area, but also what the bars were doing conceptually," said VanEmmerik, 25. "They were creating memorable experiences  I remember my first time going to Prohibition and the entrance is through a law office. Then they have this dark red lighting, jazz music and killer cocktails. It really opened my eyes. It was super different and really cool."

During his senior year he came home to visit family and noticed a space available where he grew up in Kailua. A nearby wine maker was ready to vacate a storage room, and VanEmmerik swooped in with a vision for his own speakeasy. He found the location in September 2016 and opened a year later after building out the room into a chic space that can fit roughly 40 customers.

Gaslamp Hawaii is concealed behind a hidden entrance in the Kailua Town Pub and Grill, a traditional British-style bar. Reservations are highly recommended (available through the web service Resy), and guests are given a password to get in and some extra instructions to help find the spot.

The speakeasy is open Wednesdays through Sundays and hosts live jazz performances on a small stage Thursdays to Saturdays. In addition to the specialty cocktail menu formulated by bartender Clark Dean, there is a list of rare and limited-release craft beers. The cocktail menu reflects the Aloha State with tropical and Asian variations on classic drinks, including a communal cocktail, the Boozy Carry-On, to share with three friends, and the Buddha's Kiss, a concoction of Japanese whisky, Joto Yuzu sake, honeydew, shiso, jasmine and Hawaiian honey. The Exotic Love Affair is a fruity mix of Plantation Pineapple Rum, Amaro Montenegro, pineapple, guava, house-made macadamia nut orgeat, tiki bitters and lime all served up in a ceramic skull.

Part of the deal VanEmmerik worked out with Kailua Town Pub included use of their kitchen, and Gaslamp features a menu with a cheese and charcuterie board, a trio of filet mignon, flatbreads and a whole steamed local catch. Both the food and cocktail menus are updated seasonally.
 
The dimly lit interior includes exposed brick, chandeliers over the bar, leather upholstered booths and book-lined shelves.

VanEmmerik says he wants to foster in-person connections and a warm, welcoming atmosphere. To that end, the menu includes an etiquette section that asks visitors to focus on enjoying the present company and refrain from screaming into their phones.

"We are not pretentious. We're not that bar," he said. "We want to be an incubator for meaningful interaction and nurture communication and connection."

Gaslamp Hawaii can be booked for private events, parties and corporate gatherings, and they are launching a special Sunday prime rib dinner this month.
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