Friday, February 17, 2017

Undercroft Bar, Bentonville

The entrance is subtle: a door at the foot of a stair tucked behind a brick archway. No neon lights for this place, just the word bar—written in classy black—guiding patrons who already know where they're going. I'm unsure of myself, but three men in suits walk down ahead of me, and I decide to act confident and follow them. 

My first impression is darkness, a heavy but not unpleasant darkness that makes everything seem quieter than it is. Rather than hiding something, the gloom seems keen to expose it. What little light there is brings out of the shadows a dozen glinting textures: metallic threads in the upholstery, shimmering accents on the black wallpaper, a glitter-encrusted skull on display.

Narrow spotlights accent segments of the long, low room, creating personal oases so that each table becomes an intimate sanctuary. Long wallbenches accommodate large groups of after-hours drinkers as well as couples and trios; the squat portable stools making it easy for more to join in. In the middle of the room are curious chairs with arms as high as their backs, one facing another down the line like a row of intimate cubicles. Here is another attempt at privacy: the three tall sides of each chair blocking out everything but the person sitting directly across the candlelit table. 

The bar is golden and glowing, the center of the action that manages never to overpower the darker corners. Cocktail waitresses float to and from it, friendly and faceless, serving the thirsty 5:30 crowd.

As I am notoriously indecisive even at familiar restaurants, it takes three visits from the waitress before I make up my mind. Then my drink of choice is not on tap, and I have to scramble. Thankfully, she has a recommendation on her sleeve, and I order in a breathless rush, happy to finally resolve the matter. When the pale pink confection arrives in its martini glass, I feel the halo effect of pure sophistication. The drink tastes bright and sparkly, and the fruit juices and orange liqueur play over my tongue.

I'm drinking in sounds with the liquor. Like the sharp top notes of an urban perfume, I hear the sharp sound of the exuberant bartender rattling a shaker above his head. The heart notes come with the music, warm and thrumming, easy to talk over but filling in silent gaps with ease. The background hum of conversation lays the base note, steady and comforting. 

My glass is not even half empty when I start to feel a buzz. My head fills up with sand, and my hands move with more energy as I talk. I'm a dreadful lightweight. Hopefully, my loosened tongue doesn't say anything I might later regret.

My fingers brush the tiny tabletop (which seems almost too small for the drink). It's cold to the touch, but if I stroke the cushion beside me it feels warm, like furry silk. The temperature of the room is so perfect that I don't even notice.

Time passes without a thought in this underground room. When I've paid my tab and poke my head out at the top of the stair, I'm surprised to find that it's already late evening, and the downtown is bustling with nightlife. Down below me, the congenial humming continues unbroken; it will carry on until the wee hours of Saturday morning. As for me, I've had my taste of elegant society, and it's time to get home to my dinner.

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