Think of southern cuisine and cocktails and you are transported, of course, to warmth: a sunsoaked porch, swaying branches over a river, backyard cookouts. But I submit that much southern cuisine—at least that of the calorically indiscriminant, battered and fried persuasion—and rich sweet bourbons are far better suited to days when the weather turns cool and drizzly. Do you really—really—want fried chicken and mac and cheese in 95 degree heat?
Commonwealth—the newest venture from Amanda and Cory Chigbrow, the owners of The Upstairs, Bar Abajo, and adjacent Pintxo—is a southern-tinged bar that feels tailored to a Seattle winter. You slip down an alley off Bell Street and Third Ave and find the door. A small enclosed patio beside the entrance, a chiminea burning among some cushioned lawn furniture, is the last gesture toward daylight. Beyond it lies a loungy space full of candles and dark woods and armchairs. A big stained-glass starlike object (from the original Charlie’s on Broadway) glows above the dual bars. Some of the homey touches that make The Upstairs such a relaxing environment appear here too—magazines on an end table, desk lamps, an antiquated chest as a table, lots of enticingly cushioned seating.
The back wall looks like a sort of whiskey shrine. A huge array of bourbons. A little candle-lit nook paying special homage to Japanese whiskys and Westland releases. Seven taps look ready for serious craft beer pours, but actually flow with classic cocktails: negroni, boulevardier, manhattan, vieux carre. The beer and cider list itself is small—a couple Spanish offerings, a Holy Mountain farmhouse ale, a few California beers.
The cocktails themselves mostly cost $13 and lean heavily toward whiskey. Though one of the most successful—the Mexican Armada, an unlikely blend of mezcal, gin, Campari, Green Chartreuse, and Scrappy’s Firewater Tincture (a habanero bitter that’s been popping up in cocktail bars for a while)—is shockingly balanced given its components. Not too campfirery, not too spicy, not too herbal or bitter.
There’s a small menu of southern bites, too. Home fries, mac and cheese, shrimp and grits. The portions lean tapas-size (unsurprising given that a hallway—at least for now before the Chigbrows remodel—leads to the Spanish tapas–filled Pintxo), though some of the prices skew above this. For $13 you get two fried chicken wings, lightly smeared with a blue cheese dressing, three undressed petals of castelfranco radicchio, and four small pepperchinis. The chicken itself was acceptable, moist and well-seasoned, but its breading lacked crunch, and the skin beneath was damp and slightly gummy.
Most of the space doesn’t invite eating, anyway. Many of the chairs have tables far away; the others are at high tables. This is an upscale volume joint; the signs are everywhere: a serve-yourself water cooler in the corner, those cocktail taps, the two bars, the size (space for around 60). It feels like the old south meets an older, loungier Belltown, the one of Rob Roy and Bathtub Gin and Co.