At the risk of sounding like a boozehound, one of my favorite things about visiting France is its approach to happy hour. Filling the interlude between the end of the workday and dinnertime, “l’heure de l’apéro” is a time to relax, catch up with friends, and celebrate the beginning of the night. Unlike its American counterpart, this French ritual is less about getting drunk on cheap beer and wolfing down greasy nachos, and more about sipping light, refreshing cocktails paired with snacks designed to whet your appetite — not destroy it.
Luckily, we don’t have to venture to Paris to sip on a perfectly prepared spritz with a side of duck rillettes. Swan Dive, chef Kevin Roberts’ newish bistro in the old Betty on Davis spot in the Fan, is officially Frenchifying happy hour — and the rest of the evening, too.
Fans of The Betty on Davis will find a familiar but refreshed space since Roberts and his wife, Rachelle, (Black Sheep, Perly’s) opened up shop in August.
Their changes were mainly cosmetic, including swapping out some light fixtures and artwork, and stenciling the walls with a charming bee motif. The cozy booths, pressed-tin ceiling, and generally dark and intimate vibe of the space remain. The black snakeskin bar stools face a few rows of neatly arranged bottles revealing Swan Dive’s commitment to French aperitifs, from Lillet and Salers to Dolin and Ricard Pastis. (There are also a few, such as Cynar, Aperol and Campari, from neighboring countries.) On our evening visits, the bar itself has held only a few softly glowing votives — a nice change from cocktail bars that crowd every surface with their endless assortment of bitters and herbs and other accoutrements.
Swan Dive was inspired by a trip the Robertses took to Paris, where they spent quite a bit of time in authentic, no-frills bistros and brasseries. What the spot didn’t take from the City of Light is its price point — Swan Dive’s happy hour (ahem, I mean l’heure de l’apéro) is a great value. Six dollars for your choice of more than a dozen quality aperitifs served either with club soda, tonic, or on the rocks. Make it a spritz — i.e., add bubbly, sparkling water and ice — for an extra $2. There are also $6 bottles of Loirette (a French farmhouse-style beer) and $1 off draft beers and wine by the glass. Plus some very reasonable hors d’oeuvres, such as $6 crudités with anchoïade. It’s all quite simple and straightforward, but still refined. In short, very French.
The rest of the night, bar manager Teddy Oh’s drink menu comes out to play. The cocktail list is brief, but solid, with some strong flavors often hailing from French ingredients. The Je M’Appelle Lili ($9) is an unapologetically frou-frou pink drink topped with a thick layer of egg white foam. Made from Tito’s vodka, Cocchi Americano Rosa, Dolin Blanc, Peychaud’s, simple syrup and lemon, this drink is like a boozy version of Starbucks’ cult classic pink drink — and just as Instagrammable in its delicate vintage-style glass.
The rye-based Napoleon Complex ($12) blends Pierre Ferrand cognac, Benedictine, Dolin sweet vermouth, Angostura and Peychaud’s for a nice balance of sweet and stout. It’s a crowd favorite, according to Oh, but my preference is the intensely aromatic, off-menu special “Libérez-vous!” It combines herbes de Provence-infused Dolin Rouge, Busnel Calvados, Angostura bitters and a Laphroaig malt whisky rinse. That is, when I’m not drinking an Aperol spritz.
The wine list has over a dozen wines by the glass ranging from $8 to $13, plus a nice selection of bottles starting at $33. The list is exclusively French, representing regions from the Loire Valley and Bordeaux to Languedoc, Burgundy and beyond. There are nine beers on tap, including a few from local spots Väsen, Potters, and Lickinghole Creek, along with French pale lager Kronenbourg 1664. There are also $2.50 Narragansett Lager cans.
Swan Dive’s fare may be more Gallic than its predecessors, but the crowd still feels distinctly neighborhoody. And by neighborhoody, I mean that couple who own a mansion over on Monument popping by for their weekly prix fixe fix, or a group of industry types stopping by for a few bottles of good red wine and croque-monsieurs on their night off.
It’s not a fancy crowd — it’s not really a crowd at all most nights, or at least it hasn’t been when I’ve visited. There always seems to be at least one table or spot at the bar waiting, and if you ask me, that’s a pretty important prerequisite for the kind of place you’d want to drop in to spend a happy hour or two, Parisian style.
Swan Dive may not have a charming terrace filled with chain smokers or in-your-face “French” décor (we’re looking at you, Can Can), but the place already has an authenticity that’s reminiscent of the old-school bistros that inspired its conception. Santé to that.