Outside the train window, snow-covered pine trees and a view of the Colorado Rockies roll by. I hear a train whistle in the distance, feel the faint rumble of train tracks beneath my feet. The view briefly darkens as we slip through a tunnel.
Except I’m not in a train or or anywhere near the Rockies: I’m in Phoenix, Arizona, at Platform 18, a bar built to look like a replica of a 1927 Pullman train car.
It’s only one of multiple “concept bars” within Century Grand, a former strip-mall space. These elaborate bars are intended as immersive experiences: Undertow is built to feel like a 19th-century merchant ship, with stormy seascapes glimpsed through portholes and elaborate tropical drinks, while Grey Hen channels the vibe of an apothecary-inspired whiskey saloon.
But it’s Platform 18 that speaks to the escapism of travel. Appropriately, the idea was first hatched on a trip, when cofounders Jason Asher and Rich Furnari visited Disrepute, a subterranean London bar built in a converted former bomb shelter, in 2017. Asher recalls looking around the bar’s luxe art deco touches and thinking, “I felt like it was a train station.” When he walked through the space that’s now Platform 18, he had the same impression.
Naturally, train travel past, present, and fictional all provided inspiration, ranging from the decorative splendor of the Orient Express to the westward expansion of the transcontinental railroad, which played a key role in the development of Arizona. Even the name of the bar—Platform 18—pays homage to Harry Potter’s fictional Platform 9¾; the second half of the name references the 18th Amendment, which heralded Prohibition.
Platform 18 opened in October 2019; just six months later, it shuttered for the pandemic. The bar has reopened slowly, starting in October 2020, finally returning to full capacity in November 2021.
Asher, a career bartender who formerly ran quirky pop-up bar Counter Intuitive, built an elaborate drinks menu around a fictional bootlegger, drawn from a quartet of real-life 19th-century railroad barons. Some of the drinks reference the storyline, others more general train references. The whimsical Gas the Trucks (a Boulevardier-like drink with peanut fat-washed bourbon, Concord grape, and red bitters) reflects Asher’s childhood memory of watching trains bring the circus to town—along with cotton candy and peanuts.
“If you rewind the fictional narrative, it picks up as we’re coming out of Canada,” Asher explains. That tracks: During Prohibition, when America famously restricted sales of alcoholic beverages, many bootleggers used the rails to transport booze from Canada to thirsty Americans.
The scenery that flickers between the “windows” framed between green velvet curtains shows not the Canadian Rockies, but Colorado. It’s no stock footage: The team took to the Durango & Silverton, one of the last open-air train cars in North America. They donned flameproof suits to deflect flying embers from the coal car ahead as they filmed six hours of Colorado mountains, streams and snow, spanning from Boulder to Silverton, later stitched into a 60-minute loop for the bar.
“When we first did it, we were snowed out and couldn’t shoot,” Furnari recalls. “Then we got the tail end of a great snowstorm. Sometimes you get what nature gives you.”
Aiming to engage all the senses, the team borrows from more modern technologies, too. For example, “butt-kickers” typically used to enhance gaming or film experiences create low-frequency vibrations that evoke the rhythmic chugging along the track. The end result is like a speakeasy-style bar that seems designed by Disney Imagineers.
Yet, this is just the beginning. They’re already thinking about the next storyline “destinations,” from New Orleans (coming in 2022) to a jaunt along Europe’s legendary Orient Express (a possibility for 2023).
Filming is slated to begin in early 2022 outside Baton Rouge, Louisiana, featuring nighttime scenes.
“We’ll be going through parts of the bayou with really old structures, so it can give the appearance of traveling through the 1920s, not the 2020s,” Furnari says. “We’re not going to actually be on a train for this shoot. You can shoot with a drone, a boat, off the back of a car—there’s a lot of things you can do to give the appearance of motion, then finish it off with train elements.” Computer animation will add finishing touches—like people—that will be referenced in the cocktail menu narrative.
The team has been studying a 1920s Pullman car at Scottsdale’s McCormick-Stillman Railroad Park to source even more authentic details. As a result, windows will be made smaller, a carpet runner will be added down the middle of the room, and intentionally dramatic nighttime lighting will be introduced to reflect the mood of the New Orleans nightscapes, Asher says.
Since the Platform 18 space is relatively small, accommodating a maximum of 36 “passengers,” and is often at capacity, they’re also planning to open a second location, most likely in another state. They haven’t yet established that location, although a representative confirms they’ve had interest in markets including Miami, Nashville, Sun Valley, Idaho, and multiple cities in Texas.
However, their biggest challenge lies further down the track: “These are just stepping stones to us,” Furnari says. “The train needs a destination.”
A “train station” waiting room outside the car will be added, showing the silhouettes of people embarking and disembarking, while lights will mimic the arrival and departure of the train.
“We want to look at the whole picture, the whole experience, to create something so you forget where you are and think you’re in a different time and place,” Furnari says.
That longer-term goal—to shepherd a visitor from faux train station to Jazz Age bar car, to emerge at yet another fictional panorama—remains on the horizon.
“That would be great, to create an experience where once you board a train you get off somewhere else, and that’s the experience that’s waiting for you,” Furnari says. “That’s when people truly let go, when they travel to a place they’ve never been. It’s all about the surrender and the joyful moment.”