“I’m so happy to see people here at last,” said Chris Hill.
Hill, the owner of downtown cocktail den The Esquire Tavern, was referring to the long-awaited opening of Downstairs, the cave-like new bar beneath The Esquire. Accessible from inside the venerable tavern and up a few steps from the River Walk, Downstairs is identified only by a discreet sign on that riverside door. The atmospheric space is split by a screened corridor and minimally lit mostly by decorative fixtures from Isaac Maxwell Metals (now owned by Mike Casey). The brightest focus of attention is the bar — and here, it’s a backdrop of bottles, lots of bottles, that are highlighted.
“I think we’ll develop our own little following,” said Hill, who went on to add that “there’s not a lot of swank on the river.”
This, then, is his stab at providing some. Up to you to decide if the lighted vignettes of odd, taxidermy fish that line the perimeter walls are swanky. But they are without a doubt distinctive. And so, too is the menu of both drinks and snacks, all, according to Hill, at a “just slightly higher price point than upstairs.”
For Saturday’s private opening, the bar was putting out four cocktails: a martini, a daiquiri, and two custom creations — the Fuck Monsanto (with non-GMO bourbon), and the Batman of Mexico with “high-proof and bat-friendly” tequila (bats are prime agave pollinators, by the way). Both of these were good.
As upstairs, the booze list is heavy in tequila and mezcal, but there is more emphasis on sherries and non-knee-jerk sparkling wines.
“It’s a little more wine-forward down here,” mentioned Hill.
It’s also got what must be the longest list of ciders in town; there are 12, and I look forward to sampling them all.
The Downstairs food menu is a simple one, focused on fresh oysters, charcuterie and cheeses. Chef Brooke Smith is already curing and pickling many items on the over-stuffed charc board. A curing room, not yet totally ready, will allow her to do even more in house, she says. The eventual goal is to have almost everything but the cheeses made right there.
“Descend to a new level”, is the Downstairs tagline. Maybe it’s possible to ascend to new heights at the same time. Get your ass down there and find out.
155 E. Commerce St.