WHERE: 6031 SE Stark St.
By all accounts, Caldera Public House should have been my preferred local bar.
It was walking distance from my house in a historic building, had an eccentric vibe, a beautiful back patio, decent food, and hosted live Celtic music? I have even have an amusing memory about the place. Before we got married, I came home from work one day and heard Emily in the bedroom. I said “hello,” and she called out “Oh… you’re home already? Um… I’m trying on the wedding dress.”
“Ah… gotcha.” I promptly walked down to the Caldera and got a seat because, before our marriage even began, I’d been kicked out of the house and sent down to the pub for an hour.
All the same, I rarely went to Caldera Public House, and chose other bars that were closer to work or run by friends. The food at Caldera was good, but never very good. The beer list was underwhelming, and I’m rarely a “fancy cocktails” guy. Above all else, the place was just not comfortable for very long. The live bands were good, but loud. You couldn’t sit at the actual bar because there were tables in the middle of the main room, and a small reading nook in the middle of the building had the most comfortable seats, but it was frustrating to read, eat, and drink there at the same time.
When Caldera closed up even before the pandemic, I was sad but not surprised. Then, when a new sign was hung outside the door about a month ago, I wondered if someone was trying to be the neighborhood bar Caldera struggled to be.
They were, and they are.
Walking into the previously-crowded bar room already feels different, but familiar. The tables in the middle of the room are gone, allowing people to actually sit at the bar and making the whole room feel more airy. The yellow walls have been painted a steel blue/gray, and the various beer signs are replaced by simple prints from the owner Ansel Vickery’s own collection. The bar is hardly crowded so early in its business, but the dark-stained wood and sedate decoration sends a clear message to anyone stopping in after trudging up Mt. Tabor- “Relax, unwind, chill.”
I notice quickly that, through there was little room for the small live bands before, there’s no room in the front of the bar now. Vickery, in chatting with customers, admits that he just doesn’t like it and wants people to know that this is a different place than Caldera was. You should be able to relax and not have to scream across the table in such a small bar.
“A different place from Caldera” becomes obvious immediately on grabbing a corner seat and opening the menu. Those who visited Caldera in its final years might remember the cocktail menu offering artistically-named beverages like “the Garnet,” a frankly lack-luster beer list, and a diverse pub fare menu that was always “okay.” Ansel, his chef Alex Yoder, and The Bellwether crew seem to have taken that lesson to heart. While trying to have something for everyone, the understanding is that a little bit of great is better than a whole mess of “meh.” The list of eight house cocktails are presented simply by number with their ingredients, and the eight tap beer list boasts some local favorites and a gamut of styles.
The “#3”- a concoction of Irish whiskey, lemon, honey, banana (?!) and bitters immediately grabs my attention and Ansel himself, with a sedate manner and slightly sardonic smile, fixes the drink while saying he’s “just up front to help out” and that the veteran bartender is “pissing off his staff getting in their way.” Behind him, I see a couple of my favorite bottles in the line-up of premium spirits. This place may very well be on its way to being my local.
Over the tangy-sweet refresher, my eyes bounce between the layout, the menu, and conversation with a sweet and chatty tourist sitting next to me. The reading nook is gone, which I can’t be too mad about since that’s where the tables in the middle of the room went, and the back patio through the glass door still looks beautiful.
The menu is what truly seals the deal for “not being Caldera.” A selection of small plates varying from mixed olives to charcuterie can, as advised by Vickery as he pours the foam off a pint of beer, easily make a meal for one on their own. The list of three entrees, however, arouse my curiosity. They offer a pub bacon cheeseburger, a chicken thigh special, and a bowl of curried chickpeas. Eyeing the bar room over the top of the menu, I’m intensely interested to see the chickpeas being ordered with the frequency and excitement I’d have expected for the special or the burger.
“Oh yeah,” Ansel remarks. “That’s actually really good- you really don’t miss the meat, and we can leave off the creme fraiche if they want it vegan. Between you and me, though, get the chicken thighs. We bone them out, make them really crispy, and the curry will be around a while.”
When the boss tells you what to order, you listen. The bratwurst is simple and straightforward- a solid bar snack. Same with the pickles, a seasonal rotation currently banana peppers and dilly beans. The sugarloaf chicory salad loaded up with bleu cheese, corn, and red onion is for every wedge salad fan that wants a bit more bitterness… but the real winner was those chicken thighs.
At the first bite, the crispy skin seems almost oversalted and seasoned. A second bite, however, incorporating the lemon-spritzed Israeli couscous and pesto smear on the bottom, balances everything out. The couscous does its job carrying the flavors of everything else on the plate, and gently brightening it all with the lemon. The chicken reigns supreme, but its spicy crispness is mellowed by the herbaceous oily pesto. And the grilled spring onions twisted into a nest on top? That’s just plain fun, gathering up what would have been a garnish and eating it like pasta.
“Ahh… well on the way to the Clean Plate Club?” Ansel asks, noticing the swiftly vanishing pile of food. “Anything else?” My eyes search the wall behind him, weighing in briefly between by desire and digestion, and coming up victorious.
“You know… Macallan 12, please. Small rock.”
The Bellwether is definitely not like Caldera. I won’t have to be kicked out of the house to come back.
WHEN: Open 4pm – 11pm, 7 days a week. No Reservations
WHY: Because every neighborhood needs a local, and because a little bit of great truly is better than a whole lot of “meh.”