The easiest way to tell a bar from a restaurant is by the smell of the men’s room.
I couldn’t keep that thought away from my olfactory nerve during a recent night at Southwark. It had been years since my first time there. And my first time had also been my last. I remember having a fine dinner, but one that failed to cast the spell that so many other folks had fallen under at the then-new, classically styled Queen Village haunt.
In retrospect, that was probably because I’d eaten in the back dining room instead of at the bar, where bartender George Costa was mixing Gibsons and Aviations when the rest of the city was still one big slosh of pink-lemonade Cosmotinis.
Almost ten years later everyone else has caught up—and Costa has moved on—but Southwark is still humming along. It recently installed a new chef, Sam Jacobson, whose previous tenure at Sycamore helped put Lansdowne on the dining map.
But on a recent quiet midweek night, there was no mistaking Southwark for anything but a bar, first and foremost. Monk and Coltrane drifted through the darkened air. Ten or twelve patrons chatted with a pair of barkeeps. The back dining room was empty. And the bathroom smelled like it had been a holding cell for Sigma Nu pledges during a three-day plumbing outage.
I didn’t mind. Give my bottom a cozy barstool, my hand a moody Sazerac, and my ears the sound of 1959, and I’m a happy dude. Southwark’s classic cocktails aren’t the revelation they were in the early days, nor or they are they much of a bargain—and I could have done without one puzzling bit of surliness from a bartender who otherwise treated us with benign neglect—but this nevertheless remains a soothing place to drink.
It gets extra credit for stocking smart wine values like Chad, a pinot noir made from surplus grapes from good-but-undisclosed Carneros vineyards that command much higher tariffs for their own labels. And more points still for an after-dinner drink menu featuring treats like Belle Paire pear-blended cognac and the Rare Wine Company’s historically-inspired madeiras
It’s also a good eating bar. Perhaps because my first look at the menu lulled me into restrained expectations—pork chop with brassicas, mackerel with potatoes, chicken breast with greens—I ended up feeling like a winner at every course.
A sweet and earthy sunchoke soup bore a luscious swirl of goat-milk cream from Shellbark Hollow and the two-leaf crisscross of fried sage that perfumed each sip. Spicy house-cured coppa was brightened by paper-thin apple rounds that clung to the honey-drizzled slices. And I feel like I’ll be trying to mimic the brilliantly mellowed bitterness of Jacobson’s creamed escarole all winter—even I don’t go the extra mile by pairing it with escargots, which probably would come out more rubbery than his quite tender ones.
The mains are less exciting, but the one I ordered packed the best surprise of the night. A rather piddling trout was totally upstaged by the best radishes I’ve had since the ones at Vedge rocked my world two years ago. They were shoestring-cut watermelon radishes butter-roasted to a texture that merged two kinds of crispness—the radish’s natural firmness, which had been cooked halfway toward the most superlative sort of chewiness, plus a fat-infused crunch that reminded me a little of slightly-burnt shallots. A micro-dice of preserved lime and a sweet carrot puree rounded out the best supporting cast I could ask of an entrée. The only downside was that my companion’s braised veal shoulder and crispy-edge roasted potatoes seemed humdrum by comparison, though I liked the braised fennel bulb they rode in with.
Dessert capped us off nicely—even if the most distinctive one, a watermelon-Aperol sorbet, probably won’t beckon me back until summer comes again. But now I can see myself returning for other reasons.
And certainly before I let another nine years pass.