For his job interview, Joseph Fredrickson was asked by Society Lounge owner Andrew Pucella to meet him at a bar in Cleveland to whip up a few cocktails.
"He drove up from Cincinnati with just this tiny, little retro suitcase," Pucella explains. "He made three cocktails, packed up his little suitcase and drove back home."
Despite its diminutive dimensions, that wee valise contained all the fixins needed to fashion a Hamhatten, one of Fredrickson's signature cocktails. The convoluted concoction contains pork belly-infused bourbon, maple vermouth and barbecue bitters. It's garnished with a bee pollen-dusted rim and candied pork belly. Keeping it chilly were ice cubes made with French oak barrel-aged water.
The contents of that magic satchel secured Fredrickson's position as Beverage Director of Society Lounge, which opens on March 23.
Situated entirely below ground, the 3,200-square-foot space might have repelled most commercial operators. But the setting, located on E. Fourth Street directly across from Lola, was precisely what owner Pucella was in the market for.
"Our goal was to find a remote location," he says. "We were going for that high-end speakeasy feel, but with more of a Rat Pack/Mad Men-era ambiance."
Owner of a mortgage company, as well as a handful of restaurant franchises, Pucella says that Society Lounge will scratch a niche long overlooked on E. Fourth Street.
"I've lived on Fourth Street for six years, and I've always said the only thing lacking is somewhere to go after dinner," he says. "The customer has already committed to valet parking – and maybe they have a babysitter until midnight – they don't want to get in a car or cab and go someplace else for an after-dinner drink."
It's taken eight long months to get to this point, but the plush space finally is nearing completion. Guests will enter at street level, past the doorman, and make their way down a few short flights of stairs. The windowless room features low lighting, high-backed banquettes, and red velvet sectionals. Walls are gilded with Venetian plasterwork, faux bricks, and rich tapestry. Some 32 feet of hand-painted murals depicting high-society life envelop entire walls. Roomier than one might presume – two feet of floor was dug up and carted off – the space can accommodate 100 guests.
Catering to a target demographic of 35 to 50 year olds, Society Lounge will offer live – but "romantic" – music. A baby grand piano will almost always be in use, at times joined by a small jazz band. Food will be limited to a few starters and snacks, think cheese and meat boards, a few salads, a dessert flight. But by all accounts, the focus will squarely be on the beverages.
For months, Fredrickson has been holed up in Pucella's Fourth Street condo formulating Society's cocktail list. On it are 48 classic cocktails, broken up by primary spirit. Seasonal cocktails appear on a supplemental list, as do wines by the glass and bottle, and a tightly curated beer list.
Looking every bit the part, Fredrickson is bookish, bespectacled and be-mustachioed. When he isn't behind the rail, he's busy tinkering with his own bitters, syrups and tinctures. He can chat for hours on end regarding the relative merits of shaking versus stirring. But one thing he is not is arrogant.
"Joey presents his cocktails in a way that is unintimidating because he doesn't expect you to know everything – he wants to teach you," says owner, artist and principal designer Nicolette Capuano.
"I think everybody is potentially a cocktail person, but some just haven't discovered the right drink yet," adds Fredrickson. "My job is to bring people in, show them what's out there, and get them excited."
His twist on the Old Fashioned can make a whiskey fan out of anybody. Called En Vogue (a play on fashion), the drink is built with pomegranate-infused rye whiskey, a few dashes of orange blossom water, simple syrup and lemon peel. The Car Hop Fizz, a delightful spring refresher, combines cherry-infused gin, fresh lime juice, real grenadine and club soda. His inhibition-loosening Aphrodite still in the development phase – will feature rose-infused vodka, mint tincture, champagne, orange blossom water and a hibiscus-tea sugar cube.
"I think for awhile, cocktails were all about speed and efficiency, replacing fresh ingredients for mixes," says Fredrickson. "It's like with the food scene, where chefs are doing more things from scratch, not using frozen ingredients. It's not that hard to do things the right way."
And in the right place. When Society Lounge opens, diners exiting Lola, Chinato, Greenhouse, La Strada, and soon Red will have a dreamy subterranean nook in which to canoodle over a cocktail without having to hail a cab.
"Andrew had a very nostalgic vision for this place, and it's coming together beautifully," notes Capuano.