As the children of Baby Boomers age, we’re witnessing a national migration back to urban neighborhoods. The Tenderloin. Bushwick. Oakland. Wynwood. The entire city of Detroit. Once “dangerous,” now desirable. Discussions of the dark sides of gentrification notwithstanding, the nation demands the closeness and community of walkable, historical, and socially-mixed communities. As beltway residents descend upon these neighborhoods, they bring with them a taste for food, drink, music, and art.
A tour of Riverside (and Avondale, for that matter) yields a view of this transformation. Stroll south down King Street and one passes drab warehouses, a craft brewery, some residential buildings, and, suddenly, a small, dense collection of bars (dense might be stretching it as we’re talking about eight bars in four blocks) that have, for the most part, opened in the past 10 years.
HAPPY HOUR ||| DERBY ON PARK
Pointed boldly at the traffic circle’s blinking light is the recently refreshed Derby on Park, formerly a greasy spoon of neighborhood note that has been transformed into a nicely-appointed local hangout. The covered patio beckons at happy hour and should stay cool through the summer due to good use of materials, shade, and fans that keep the air moving without being intrusive. Sitting on the patio is comfortable and feels distinctly Floridian, except for in some spaces near the back (which are dark enough to make diners forget they’re drinking spring cocktails in a state famous for sun porches). Overall, Derby on Park offers a remarkably pleasant and locally resonant outdoor experience.
The cocktail list could stand the type of local awareness that was put into the spatial design. It leans somewhat heavily on gimmicks and feels a bit unfocused, where it might make more sense to take some inspiration from Hemingway. Happy hour specials are good ($3 wells/domestics, $4 house wines and cocktails), however, and small plates shine. Fried ricotta bruschetta pairs nicely with an Old Fashioned, and gets you out the door for less than $15 after tax and tip if you get in before 7 p.m.
DIVE ||| THE SILVER COW
One of the area’s newest establishments is The Silver Cow, a small spot at the historic Whiteway Corner. The layout immediately recalls Brooklyn’s Boerum Hill or the Bowery’s bars, though the lack of open air frontage departs from each. Narrow in berth and dim in lumen, the Cow tells you that this is a place for speaking quietly but thoughtfully, or for gathering your friends to straddle the lines between adulthood with a hilariously-large charcuterie presentation (mounted on a whole barrel stave) and recently-departed youth with a game of Cards Against Humanity. It is a sort of Millennial-sophisticate dive — a new generation’s pub serving Mediterranean-inspired tapas that manage to be tasty without assuming a declarative posture, whether ridiculous or classy. That is for you to decide.
As far as the drinks go, The Silver Cow has the type of craft beer list we’ve come to expect from independent bars, and the staff seems comfortable making recommendations from that list without taking it too seriously. They seem less comfortable with the wine selection, but prices here don’t demand som-level conversations, so this isn’t really a bad mark, but a recommendation to come with some sense of what you like.
LATE NIGHT ||| RAIN DOGS
If you’re still out on Park Street later in the evening, you’ll inevitably hear a cacophony rise from the middle of the block, as drinkers on Rain Dogs’ and Birdie’s porches compete for most rowdy. But enter Rain Dogs and you’ll be greeted by a surprisingly refreshing experience.
This is by no means an upscale bar, but it manages to be a gathering place that never descends into the endearingly smelly grossness that marks most youthful haunts. Recessed frontage plays host to one of the city’s most consistently interesting displays of pop art. The porch gets loud and crowded, but rarely uncomfortable or ridiculous.
Rain Dog’s cool floors, clean bathrooms, and calm bartenders inspire crowds to maintain their heads in a way that’s almost indicative of maturity — local musician and bar visionary Christina Wagner’s touch is obvious here. The back of the establishment also houses a small venue space that recalls a cramped West Village jazz club, where you’ll hear local indie and punk bands for a small cover.
Rain Dogs has an extensive beer list — though, with the opening of no less than three craft beer bars and tasting rooms within casting distance, this is less of a value proposition than it might have been five years ago. Still, Rain Dogs is a fun place that has elevated the neighborhood, both in reasons to be in Five Points and in standards for late-night adult environments.
UPSCALE ||| ORSAY
The most refined, most adult drinking experience to be found in the area is just down the road in Avondale. Of all the spots in the city where one can eat a plate of raw bivalves by hand, none civilizes the experience like Orsay. This is a restaurant with a true bar program. Spirits Director Alex Smith and Bar Manager Adam Adams have assembled a tour de force of libations ranging from bespoke classics like the Vesper to left-field moderns like the Tenenbaum Royale that would feel perfectly at home at Broussard’s or Employees Only.
Orsay’s viticean alcohols impress as well. The wine list is remarkable in that it puts in the hands of by-the-glass drinkers boutique wines not often attainable in portions smaller than .750 ml. Glasses of Pride Mountain’s bright and aromatic Viognier can be enjoyed without breaking the bank.
Orsay shines in the details. The lighting is modern and extensive without being too bright and, even when the bar packs out, the noise is never intrusive. The path from the social lounge to the formal dining room is through a hallway that recalls a Russian River cellar tunnel much more than the route to the wash closet. Orsay is the dining experience against which all new entries to Riverside’s high-end scene should be comparing themselves.