MANSFIELD – When Rick Taylor discovered man-made sandstone caverns underneath his restaurant, he saw it as a two-fold opportunity.
The secluded vaults of arched sandstone form a one-of-a-kind venue, but also a chance to preserve a piece of Mansfield’s history.
"There were seven breweries in that area," said Taylor, who co-owns Hudson and Essex and Cypress Hill Winery with his wife Carol.
"I think when a couple of generations are gone and there's no written documentation, everybody forgets it ever really happened.”
The caverns will be open to the public next month in the form of a new dining establishment -- Prohibition at the Caverns. The fine dining establishment will offer a gourmet eight-course meal, prepared onsite with locally-sourced ingredients.
Prohibition will be open on Friday and Saturday evenings and require prepaid reservations. Reservations are available at $165 for food only and $190 with wine, per person. That fee includes gratuities and tax.
Restaurant manager Amber VanHouten said Prohibition will go beyond top caliber food and drinks.
“I think ‘experience’ is a key word. This is not just a meal," she said. "This is something you'll remember hopefully for a long time to come and look forward to.”
According to Sierra Carver, Hudson and Essex's executive chef, the meal will begin with a bread course, followed by an amuse-bouche, two vegetarian courses, soup, fish and a main course. After an entree of red meat, guests will enjoy a a cheese course, followed by a sorbet, main dessert and coffee service. Guests will also receive a scratch-made peppermint to take home.
Wine pairing samples will be offered throughout the meal. VanHouten said the restaurant is also working with a local brewery to create a custom bourbon mash exclusively for the caverns.
Each table will have just one reservation per evening, so guests will be able to take their time and savor each course.
Like Hudson and Essex, Carver said the menu will change with the seasons. Vegetables and meats will be sourced locally from producers like the Richland Gro-Op.
“That is part of the reason our price point is what it is," VanHouten said. "You're not getting a regular cut of anything when you're down there. You're getting the highest quality possible, grown with love.”
Prohibition at the Cavern will open for business on Aug. 5.
Crews from the Adena Corporation found two caverns on the property while renovating the site for Hudson and Essex in the spring of 2018. When the crew made the discovery, they called Taylor, who rushed over to see them first-hand.
The finding confirmed a report Taylor received shortly after purchasing the property.
“There was a guy -- I can't remember his name -- he called me and said, 'You don't know what you've just bought. You've got the most beautiful caverns under there," he recalled.
Taylor said he invited the man to come down and show him where the rumored caverns were located.
"The answer was, ‘Well, you'll find them,' " Taylor said. "I don't think he really knew where they were exactly.
"It was just an accident that we figured out that there were caverns there. And it was another accident that we figured out how to get into them."
It's believed these caverns and others were used by a former brewery to store and keep beer cool in the 1800s, as there were no commercial refrigeration units at the time.
“Everybody that goes down there assumes it was a speakeasy during Prohibition,” Taylor said. “It really wasn't, but that's the feeling that everybody has.”
Taylor said the caverns were likely built in the 1860s, but it's hard to determine whether or not they predate the Civil War because many of the city’s and county’s municipal records from that time no longer exist.
“When the city and county moved into their new buildings, they threw a lot of records away, which is terrible, so a lot of that history was lost,” he explained.
There’s currently debate on whether the sandstone blocks that make up the structure came from the excavated site or a quarry just north of town.
“There's a lot of speculation that they used dynamite to kind of loosen things up,” Taylor said.
“The accepted theory is that they dug up this huge rectangle and then they built these arched ceilings and then they covered it up, like 20 feet under the ground.
According to Taylor, the brewery that accessed the caverns was located on the other side of Temple Court, north of the caverns.
“There’s a tunnel that goes under Temple Court and you can see where it’s all blocked up,” Taylor said.
“They had some kind of pulley system that pulled carts from their basement into one of two of those caverns. We found pulleys that were embedded in a sandstone.”
Today, that tunnel is used for a second set of stairs to meet the city's fire code requirements.
Preparing the space took nearly four years.
To meet all the legal requirements for operating an underground eatery, Taylor had to install an elevator shaft, build a separate emergency exit and even lower the property’s parking lot.
“Lot of red tape,” Taylor said.
Concrete floors were poured to make the space accessible.
“It was such an uneven floor. It was just not very suitable for walking, sitting, doing anything," he said.
Nevertheless, Taylor left the interior of the caverns largely unchanged to preserve the earthy, underground feel.
VanHouten said the decor will be minimalistic and understated.
"We're doing a very muted, classic vibe," she said. "We don't want to take away from the natural beauty of the caverns. We just want to enhance it a little bit more, make it very secluded, make it romantic. You know we're hoping a lot of anniversaries are down there, things of that nature."
Taylor, VanHouten and Carver all say they want Prohibition to be a destination for locals and visitors alike.
Obviously we want all the local people to come. We also want to bring in outside people to show them what Mansfield has to offer," Carver said.
"We're looking to put Mansfield on the map."
To make your exclusive reservation for Prohibition at the Caverns, contact Amber or Bri at 419-513-5151.