As a recent transplant to the burbs, I’m still adjusting to a world where the streets are clean, the neighbors are polite and the nights are silent. This is the world of Shagbark, chef Walter Bundy’s elegant restaurant tucked into an as-yet-undeveloped street somewhere not far from Willow Lawn. Like the restaurant itself, the bar is popular with well-heeled West Enders who don’t mind the early closing time (9 o’clock most nights).
Shagbark devotes a pretty sizable chunk of its floor space to the bar and lounge area, and it’s a good thing. This place is a natural destination for fancy happy-hour meetups for professional types from nearby office parks. The bar stretches long and curves around to a corner of the restaurant with a few extra tables for bar guests and diners who don’t mind sharing their space with the cocktail crowd. The bar itself is a beautiful marbled stone, the stools sturdy and upholstered in a pale turquoise leather, with blue pendants overhead resembling sea glass. A large taxidermied turkey lords over the scene, and the artwork and décor have a hunting-lodge vibe (antlers, wildlife scenes, more taxidermy). The whole place feels very coastal-meets-cabin, which makes sense, given the restaurant’s mission to serve as “a stage for local farmers, fishermen and artisans.”
Behind the bar, there’s a really impressive range of bottles stacked four rows deep on mirror-backed shelves stretching in either direction from the corner of the room. A significant chunk of this is Scotch and other whiskeys, plus a nice collection of rums. A few bartenders in crisp white shirts and leather aprons scurry around behind the bar.
There are surprisingly few cocktails on Shagbark’s bar menu, given its expansive liquor collection. There are eight “potent potables” on the list divided into subcategories: Old Virginia, Sours, Cocktails and Refreshers. I’m not sure if my love for gin or my son’s obsession with “Frozen” led me to start with the Let It Go ($12), but I was rewarded with the bartender offering an abbreviated performance of the Idina Menzel song. The drink (gin, Lustau Vermut, Luxardo maraschino) looks like something an ice princess would concoct, with crystal-clear liquid, plenty of blocky ice, and a sugar-dusted cherry on top. It’s pure booze, but it’s remarkably smooth with a botanical bent.
Passionate Desire from the Refreshers section ($12) is indeed reminiscent of something you’d sip on a tropical beach. It’s rum-based with Clement Créole Shrubb adding an orange note to the dominant passionfruit flavor. The Shagbark Sour ($13, Bowman Brothers bourbon, James River Distillery Øster Vit, Amaro Averna, blueberry, egg white) is super-sweet and served up in a teensy glass but packs a covert punch.
Through the holidays, there are also a few beverage specials, including “Shaggnogg” ($12), a decadent eggnog “fluffed up with maple-nutmeg meringue.” It’s fun and festive and makes me wonder why we can’t have eggnog year-round.
Besides cocktails, there are about half a dozen beers on tap, all from Virginia brewers. Mostly Hardywood currently, but also Potter’s Cider and a Double IPA from Benchtop Brewing Co. out of Norfolk. There are about 20 wines by the glass, including some interesting seasonal specials, such as a Garganega from Italy, an organic white recommended for pairing with seafood.
On a recent Thursday visit around 6 p.m., we had to elbow our way to the sole open seat at the bar through a crowd of networking professionals in their business-casual attire. They cleared out fairly quickly when 7 p.m. hit, but the bar area stayed busy with enough well-coifed ladies of a certain age that I couldn’t ignore a certain Real Housewives of Richmond vibe. And I don’t mean that in a bad way.
The TV was tuned to swimming, and the music was either nonexistent or completely forgettable. Our bartender was quite busy at first, then slowed down enough for the aforementioned serenade, and even shared a little taste of an excellent Guatemalan rum when I mentioned my affinity for the category.
Overheard at the bar
“If she’s claiming poor, you are not buying her dinner.”