There are rules: you can only gripe so much if you order a $4 cocktail. At that price, drinks are transactional, more medicinal prescription than matter of taste. Expect ice, soda, two black straws, a citrus wedge, and a splash of gasoline. That the happy hour cocktail list at The Sovereign offers nine options at $4, and that these options are not gripe-worthy, is one of the many surprising things about this bar.
The Sovereign, from the owners of the Forge Lounge, opened last September in the historic Maynard building on the corner of First and Washington, in a former bank lobby. I’ve walked by a few times and instead ended up at across the street at Damn the Weather or down the block at Altstadt, always thinking the Sovereign a touch too swank—its tile floors and underlit art nouveau bar and granite chandeliers visible through the ground level windows. A subterranean doppleganger to the Arctic Club’s Polar Bar. The sort of place that echoes of evening dresses and pocket squares and scotch-breathed conversations that negatively affect the proletariat.
But descend the stairs and the Sovereign’s glitz fades endearingly. Sure, you could wear an evening dress, but you wouldn’t look out of place in flipflops. Down here good slippery '70s funk plays—Curtis Mayfield, James Brown—and that tile floor has turned the tawny yellow of an old smoker’s teeth; dark veiny cracks run through it. On an August afternoon, the place is charismatically cool. Sunlight falls from the windows and flutters through passersby’s legs. A flamingo stands by the door and a tropical vibe adorns the menu graphics too: sprays of palm leaves, a seaplane.
The cocktail options are playful and lean toward vodka, rum, and tequila. Those $4 drinks are at least inoffensive, sometimes good, and not light on the liquor. The Hibiscus Tonic has hibiscus vodka, grapefruit bitters, tonic; the rotating punch was a not-quite-harmonious pairing of Campari, tequila, and grapefruit. The Ernesto Punch has rum, maraschino, Fernet Branca, and grapefruit, and it was, if a bit too sweet, the best drink—complicated, balanced, and brisk. A digression into the regular cocktail menu, where the drinks run between $8 and $11, fares worse. The Stallion—a blend of mezcal, lime, guava, and ginger beer—sounds like a good idea. But the mezcal, like a cheap peaty scotch, blows past the other ingredients with notes of stale ashtray.
The food roams—France, Mexican-American, the tropics, the 1950s. Baked brie, deviled eggs, citrus pork tacos. It’s satisfying enough bar fare. The deviled eggs are as they ought to be, simple, with a snap of dill and Dijon. While those tacos—their soft flour shells sodden with juices—transport you less south of the border than to an Azteca fajitas platter. As does a dish of poblano cervesa queso with chips, a spicy beer cheese that you could find in any bar.
But c’est la vie. Or as the menu instructs: Si vous ne pouvez pas le creuser, obtenir uné nouvelle pelle. If you cannot dig it, get a new shovel.