Until recently, I never really felt comfortable in what I like to call "living room bars" — the type of space, usually dubbed a speakeasy, with deep, communal couches instead of traditional tables and stools. I always felt like I was crashing someone's private party when I walked in the door. With limited seating options, I'd usually perch on the arm of a couch, or, somewhat uncertainly, flop down into an unoccupied chair as other bar patrons continued their conversations around me.
Yes, I could handle the couch that sat near Charlie Miller's Elvis Matador painting and the Vampirella poster at the Lamplighter, but any casual seating arrangement beyond that was a lot for me to negotiate.
- Crosstown Arts
- The Art Bar
That said, I do love the environment at Dodici, the upstairs lounge with artisan cocktails that is accessible by a set of stairs inside Bari. Yes, sometimes I do feel like an interloper when I jog up the stairs to discover a full crowd, but when I'm early enough to grab a seat, I feel, well, like I'm home somehow — or in the home of a good friend who has a deft touch with artisanal cocktails.
I also feel at home at the intimate upstairs bar at Earnestine & Hazel's, where, illuminated by twinkling fairy lights, bartender Nate Barnes mixes drinks. Once served, visitors tend to wander, settling down in the various eclectic, sparsely-furnished rooms that were once used by brothel workers.
The newly opened Art Bar at the Crosstown Concourse has been the real game-changer for me. Located in a somewhat hidden series of rooms on the second floor (start at the top of the red staircase, and look for the narrow entrance near Crosstown Art's gallery spaces and Green Room performance space), Art Bar takes the intimate living room lounge concept to the next level.
Crosstown Arts' Amanda Sparks decorated the bar with pet-themed "found" art — think porcelain Persian cats positioned on a coffee table beneath paint-by-numbers of English setters and Siamese cats. An interesting — dare I say intoxicating? — cocktail menu by bar manager Bart Mallard adds another creative layer.
Since it opened at the beginning of September, I've visited Art Bar numerous times: to catch up with old friends, to meet first dates, and to while away a few hours playing gin rummy. I've watched total strangers have fun, and, much to the amusement of a particularly sweet Tinder date, I've walked inside to discover that I know 95 percent of the bar's inhabitants. I've sat at the edge of a chair for candid conversation, sprawled on a couch to shuffle playing cards (these, of course, featured fluffy kittens), and drank enough tequila to give me a vicious hangover. Headache and dry mouth aside, Art Bar has served me well on all occasions.
The cocktail menu itself can be disconcerting. Ordering a drink called "meditation of copulating lizards" with a straight face is tough on a blind date. Does the drink reference the sinister Aleister Crowley or bring to mind Night of the Iguana by Tennessee Williams? I just want tequila in my glass, please — and while the cactus pear and jalapeño honey combination sounds delicious, I prefer to gesture to the printed menu rather than utter the drink's name aloud.
Mallard's concoctions are delectable, but don't be afraid to order more traditional drinks if that's your preference. A few weeks ago, I sipped a bit of my drinking partner's Old Fashioned and was astonished by how smooth it tasted. Maybe I could go back to brown liquor, after all.
The winding space — some rooms feel as narrow as a hallway; others are wide and open — feels easier to navigate once you have a few of Mallard's drinks under your belt. I've picked up my drink and wandered through Art Bar like I was some part of Hemingway's Moveable Feast, nodding to the Memphis-based artists and writers that have come like moths to a light to occupy this unique place.
Art Bar is open Tuesday through Saturday nights, beginning at 5 p.m. Check it out for yourself. Like the best living room bars in town, the not-so-serious vibe lends itself to some serious fun.