A white house with a picket fence and a wooden porch sits awkwardly among the bustling stores and restaurants on South Park Avenue in Rockville Centre. The front door is about 35 feet back from the sidewalk, as if there is a shyness to come forward, and the darkened windows on both the ground and upper levels indicate that there is nothing meaningful going on inside.
Or is there?
A small sign reads “Museum Opens Daily @ 4 p.m.,” but shoppers walking by appear uninterested. The party atmosphere at an open-air restaurant across the street is much more appealing on an unusually pleasant February day.
The mystery continues when one walks into the house and sees a cordoned-off stairway promoting a gift shop on the second level. But the charade ends there. There are no paintings hanging on the walls or display items from earlier centuries. Instead, it is a place to enjoy a cocktail, meal or snack — and to discover that the name of the establishment is Cork & Kerry.
The bar is “hidden” for a reason: Owners Chris Corbett, a one-time FDNY firefighter, and Doug Brickel, a former Italian and Spanish teacher, designed it in the style of the Prohibition era, from 1920 to 1933, when the production, importation, transportation and sale of alcoholic beverages was banned nationwide. During those years, many clubs and restaurants quietly acquired and sold alcohol through discreet — or deceptive — means.
Cork & Kerry opened in bar-centric Rockville Centre almost a year ago, and is one of two establishments with a similar theme owned by Corbett and Brickel. The other one, in Floral Park, has a coffee house in the front and a phone booth behind the building that patrons use to enter the bar.
“There were a bunch of places in the city that we liked going to that had that same vibe and theme going on,” Corbett said, referring to Manhattan. “Obviously, there’s nothing like that on Long Island. When we were expanding, we went to Rockville Centre for that white house and thought it would fit rather well.”
Corbett is not a history buff, but he explained that he needed to be knowledgeable about Prohibition to create and maintain the club’s realism. He often refers to Cork & Kerry as a speakeasy, a term of that time for a club where people secretly gathered for drinks.
“I like reading up on it,” he said.
The space was previously occupied by Cook’s Fancy, a kitchen boutique store, for about 30 years. The house itself was built in the 1860s. The bar is named for the counties of Cork and Kerry in Ireland, where Corbett’s ancestors came from.
“This wasn’t the original concept for Cork & Kerry, but we ended up keeping it,” he said. “… And I actually don’t really like the name.”
In keeping with the motif, there is no signage anywhere on the premises. There is a phone inside the bar, but no dialable number that connects to it. Instead, the owners depend on word of mouth and social media for their business.
“That’s part of the whole theme,” Corbett said. “We don’t really advertise. We just use social media. Sometimes we’ll put pictures out of drinks. Sometimes we’ll keep people informed on what’s going up.”
That unusual strategy is paying off for Corbett, 38, and Brickel, 31. Since the place opened, 32 of 35 reviews by customers on Yelp.com have given it four- or five-star ratings, and Verizon FIOS recently featured the bar on its ”Restaurant Hunters” show.
“We were more worried that the quality of the cocktails would be what brings people through,” Corbett said. “We wanted to make sure that we were putting out a quality product than whether the people are impressed with the space or not, or they like the story of finding it or not. The drinks are what make people come back.”
Cork & Kerry serves draft beer and a selection of over 500 whiskeys, but prides itself on its cocktails. Corbett said that he, Brickel and the other servers will fulfill any traditional, or non-traditional, drink request.
“We want anyone who’s looking for a higher-quality product,” he said. “We do our research. We know our classic cocktails. We build on them. If you come up to the bar and tell us some of your likes and dislikes, we’ll come up with a once-in-a-lifetime, handmade cocktail for one.”