A new breed of cocktail lounge has been emerging across the country, one dedicated to the golden age of the classic cocktail — the fizzes, the toddies, and the slings of the 1920s and ’30s.
Libations are taken seriously at these new-old spots, where correct glassware is used to serve concoctions carefully composed with authentic ingredients, fresh juices, and infusions that revive vintage recipes. As Sandy Levine says, it’s about “bartenders applying as much attention to cocktails as chefs do to food.”
Levine, the former general manager of Birmingham’s Chen Chow Brasserie, is the man behind Ferndale’s appealing new watering hole in the former Nami Sushi Bar on West Nine Mile Road. Its name, The Oakland Art Novelty Company, recalls the “Joe-sent-me” Prohibition era it’s meant to reflect. The Oakland was created in the mold of Levine’s favorite lounge in Chicago, where he and his wife lived briefly. The couple spent many evenings in the romanticized speakeasy setting of The Violet Hour on North Damen Avenue.
When they returned to their hometown of Detroit three years ago, it was with a plan in the back of their minds: to bring something reminiscent of The Violet Hour here.
“I contacted the guy who opened The Violet Hour and (jokingly) asked if he would open one in Detroit,” says Levine, who also researched the subject, reading David Wondrich’s books Imbibe! and Punch, which are considered definitive volumes on vintage drinks.
“He said he’d be happy to work with me if I was serious, and we had several meetings over the phone,” Levine says. “In the few years that I’ve been back in Detroit, he has achieved incredible success and now works with some major hotel chains, so he couldn’t dedicate the time and effort to open a bar here. He has been a sort of unofficial adviser to me in a lot of ways.”
The result is Ferndale’s new nightspot, done up with fancifully carved period bar stools, high-backed chairs, and antique-style sofas and chairs against a background of deep purple bathed in soft light from 10 glittering crystal chandeliers and candles that flicker inside little glass holders.
Small wooden whiskey barrels on the bar hold special drinks that are meant to age before being served. “I’ve recently experimented with a variation of a Sazerac that I call On the Night You Were Born,” Levine says. “It contains rye whiskey, absinthe, and Pedro Ximénez. That will be the first cocktail we age in whiskey barrels.”
Other drinks on The Oakland bar menu include a margarita made with Añejo tequila and hickory-smoked ice, and a Manhattan that includes homemade maraschino cherries. “We’re working on making ones that explode in your mouth, similar to the spherical olives made at El Bulli in Spain,” he says.
The attention to detail is such that The Oakland makes its own bitters and fruit syrups and uses specially shaped “coupe” ice cubes to prevent excessive melting that interferes with the taste of such drinks as the Levines’ favorite, the Juliet and Romeo, a blend of gin, muddled mint and cucumber, and rosewater, which, of course, is on the list too.
For now, it’s cocktails-only, with some finger food to come later. The intimate room seats just 54, but a back patio will be added shortly. There, the theme will change to yet another revived theme from the past: the tiki bar.