By Lynette Carrington
Behind the Renaissance Phoenix Downtown Hotel, guests are beckoned by a painting of Malinda Curtis, a wickedly intriguing woman emerging from a fire like a Phoenix from the ashes.
Those in the know open the camouflaged door at the bottom of the massive 70-foot mural in the alley that is curiously lit with a single red light. It leads to Melinda’s Alley, a speakeasy that has been engaging cocktail enthusiasts, historians and the curious since January 2016.
“Part of the ambiance of going to Melinda’s Alley is going in through the alley and then down the stairs,” says Rhonda Benston, bartender and “unofficial official” historian.
The entrance is north of the hotel in the alleyway between Central Avenue and First Street. Just look for Malinda. You can’t miss her.
To appreciate the appeal of Melinda’s Alley, one must understand the history of the area and the hotel. The Adams Hotel opened in 1896 but was destroyed by a fire in 1910. It was immediately rebuilt then imploded in 1973.
The hotel was rebuilt in 1975 and now houses the Renaissance Phoenix Downtown Hotel. That was the same year Benston started working at the hotel.
“There was an opening at the hotel and I applied for it,” Benston says. “Now almost 43 years later, I’m still here!”
The bartender has since become the hotel’s unofficially official historian. Ask her anything about the property and chances are she knows the answer. She even knows the history and rumors behind Malinda Curtis, the bar’s pseudo namesake.
Melinda’s Alley occupies the basement of the Renaissance Phoenix Downtown Hotel, within the concrete foundation of the 1910-version Adams Hotel. It has seemingly absorbed the legend, infamy and history of Downtown Phoenix since 1896. Maybe that’s part of its appeal.
Curtis was an African-American woman who lived in the red-light district area of Downtown Phoenix.
“In the 1880 Louisiana census, it said she was a domestic girl,” Benston says. “In the late 1890s, she went to Tucson, and then moved to Bisbee when the mines were going with copper and she became a prostitute.”
Soon thereafter, Curtis wound up in Downtown Phoenix.
“I think she is buried over in Greenwood Cemetery on 27th Avenue,” Benston says. “I don’t know if anyone’s seen her headstone, but that’s what I’ve heard.
“She liked to drink, and her drink of choice was gin. I think alcoholism is what caused her to die, but nobody knows exactly how old she was. In the black community, it was known that she was taken care of. If she would get into a fight, she was always bailed out. Her house was in the alley area. She would take in strangers who were down on her luck or give them money. She was always taking care of other people. I really think she had a heart of gold. But she would get drunk and get mean and fight.”
When Melinda’s Alley was ramping up to open, the name of the speakeasy was spelled “Melinda.” Shortly after it opened, it was discovered that the woman’s name was spelled “Malinda,” but the original name stood – another fun quirk of one of the coolest spots in Downtown Phoenix.
The speakeasy is open 9 p.m. to 2 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and features four cocktails weekly, plus an old-fashioned.
“Whatever mixologist Tony Escalante decides to make for that weekend, those are his cocktails,” Benston says.
The lure of an ever-changing cocktail menu is just part of the why people seek out the destination. The décor is a draw as well, as it houses vintage couches and seating, old-fashioned lights, mirrors and art. Often, patrons will leave dollar bills with notes in the speakeasy, in a sense, creating even more history in the unique spot.
Melinda’s Alley, Renaissance Phoenix Downtown Hotel, 50 E. Adams Street, Phoenix, 602.256.3487.
For other bars around Phoenix, visit our attractions page.