THIS YEAR is stressing me out. I’ve been spending Sunday mornings reading the news and staving off panic attacks. As I assume the rest of the nation does, I seek refuge in Spike TV’s weekly marathon of the reality show Bar Rescue and the supersonic rage-whine of host Jon Taffer.
Taffer—who seems like he probably got his start as Wayne Newton’s liaison to the Vegas mob—goes around aiding failing bars by berating the owners and employees, then redesigning the spaces in the style of, I have to assume, locations from unproduced Chuck Lorre sitcoms.
Taffer starts with a “stress test”: Partially train the dysfunctional staff, invite a hundred million people into the bar at once, ready an air horn and/or a bunch of flashing lights, and start tallying failures. It’s a mess, but at least this chaos is artificial. And if it gets too bad, they’ll shut it down and then Taffer (Chris Christie’s unabsorbed twin) will fix everything.
Frankly, I like the optimism. I watched the Republican National Convention and the Democratic one: I learned that the world ends in November no matter how we choose. To see any person anywhere decide to rebrand, remodel, or even open a totally new bar now—in our Last Summer Ever—is amazing.
Sitting at a new bar with a cocktail in hand, it’s hard not to feel some hope that we might still have a mostly functioning society a year from now. Here are a few favorite drinks from new and renewed hotspots:
Quaintrelle3936 N Mississippi
Bustling North Mississippi keeps on gentrifying as though we’ll have a middle class forever. Case in point: Quaintrelle, which was Mac! Mac and Cheesery until owner Emily Everett decided the rent was too high to justify fast-casual cuisine. After she redesigned and rebranded the space, Quaintrelle’s making a grab at some of that fancy cocktail money with drinks around the $12 mark, each with a goofily flat description. The À la Dèbanade—a calming, daisy-colored gin and Amaro Nonino sour with smoked honey—tastes as pretty as it looks. Meanwhile, dig the Bianca Blanca (which is actually a fruity red color from a pleasantly weighty tayberry gomme syrup and Punt e Mes sweet vermouth) with its dry vermouth and vodka. It’s a juicy, herbal refresher that makes plain old water seem unworthy of quenching your thirst.
Urdaneta3033 NE Alberta
The bar program at reality show winner Javier Canteras’ Urdaneta features a few Spanish and even Basque idiosyncrasies. The Negroni Español ($12) features Gin Mare next to a Spanish white vermouth and Campari. When I had it, that Spanish gin was unavailable so it was made with Gompers, an Oregon pear-inflected gin. But the Spanish love gin, so I look forward to the proper version of this Negroni when the Gin Mare arrives. For now, I’ll stick with the Basque-American cocktail Picon Punch, starring a house-made bitter-orange Amer Picon. With brandy, sour cherry, and soda, the Picon Punch at Urdaneta tastes old-timey, like a solid cola: tart, bitter, and sort of nutty, but sweet and complex enough to keep you coming back.
Rue1005 SE Ankeny
Speaking of antique-feeling soda drinks, Inner Portland newcomer Rue is offering up everyone’s favorite bitter amaro, Fernet Branca, mixed with a huckleberry soda under the delightful name Forgive and Fernet ($10). It gives the Fernet room to stretch out its bracing bitterness, and feels much cleaner than a Fernet and Coke. Rue is also mixing banana liqueur and Cocchi Rosa’s bitter, fruity aperitif with brandy in the Sharknana ($11), or Genépy alpine liqueur and tequila in Leon’s Manhattan ($10)—but to me this huckleberry soda is the simplest, best move on the menu. Summer berries are getting a lot of love right now, but the huckleberry brings just enough tartness to stand up to Fernet.
Southpark Seafood901 SW Salmon
It must mean something if even downtown mainstays like Southpark Seafood are investing in the future, so I’ll take their recent remodel as a good sign. The addition of a raw bar that’s inviting but not gaudy is welcome, especially when happy hour includes a three-for-$5 oyster option. Happy hour also includes $5 sangria, which currently involves a Bordeaux cherry-based and heavily fortified blend of red and white wines with brandy, orange liqueur, and plenty of citrus. The preserved cherry is central, with the body and sweet/tartness of a melted fruit roll-up.
Whether the world ends at the tiny hands of a fiberglass-coiffed bloviating racist or drowns in a sea of Bernie Bro tears, we can’t count on adorably unhinged teddy bear Jon Taffer to save us. But with any of these drinks in my hand, I’m convinced we’re ready to pass the stress test the rest of this season promises to put us through.