It seems like this place has been here … well, not forever, but for more than a week. With its eccentric décor, carefully curated cocktail menu and natty crowd, Velveteen Rabbit (1218 S. Main St.) already feels like it’s been part of the Arts District for a while. The room’s trompe-l’oeil walls and randomly upholstered, vaguely Victorian furniture suit the shabby-chic style of downtown bars, while light-pattern art and mildly creepy/kinda cartoonish paintings pick up the gallery vibe from the surrounding blocks.
The sense of aesthetic whimsy extends behind the bar — a row of gilded hands serve as beer taps, a Queen Anne china cabinet houses jewel-toned decanters among bottles of Falernum and Fernet Branca. But when it comes to pouring those bottles and glasses, the Velveteen Rabbit is quite serious indeed: Some of the best mixologoy in town can be discovered on Main Street, amid the auto mechanic shops and midcentury furniture stores. Sisters Pamela and Christina Dylag bartended around Vegas for a few years (everywhere from Downtown Cocktail Room to Mickie Finnz) and dreamed of crafting exquisite cocktails in a dimly lit lounge all their own. After a lot of permitting and thrifting and concocting, the Velveteen Rabbit has finally opened its doors.
The Crucifix in a Death Hand (named after a Bukowski poem, the one about shopping bags and getting old) is a standout cocktail that neatly balances the Knot Irish Whiskey with a mélange of other ingredients. Mix in a spritz of absinthe, a dash of Angostura bitters, a slide of lemon peel, garnish with house-brandied cherry and you’ve got one of the most alluring libations in town, a blend of smoky and sweet, citrus and licorice that invites sipping and savoring. The Blind Willow has a differently intriguing taste profile: sage-infused Old Overholt rye gives a woody, herbal flavor while honey and egg white provide a sweet lift — rather like a springtime forest in a Champagne coupe glass. The Life Sentence blends bourbon with the more delicate tastes of St. Germain elderflower liqueur, rhubarb bitters and a twist of flambéed orange peel
Of course, it’s not just brown liquor. There’s a craftsman-caliber Cosmopolitan for the less adventurous, or the Green Bitch’s shakeup of Bols Genever, green chartreuse, celery and curry bitters for those who want something neither they nor anyone they know has tasted before. And, for those who prefer beer to liquor, there’s an excellent selection — not vast, but well-curated — from scrumptious Angry Orchard cider to pricey big-bottle Belgians to $3 Schlitz drafts. Prices are surprisingly reasonable; a drink that requires seven top-shelf ingredients and five minutes of shaking, splashing, spraying and squeezing will still leave you with change from a $10.
The comfortable chairs and delectable beverages have already drawn a steady crowd of locals. On weekends, you get parties in porkpies and cloches dragging the brocade chairs into clusters, folks dropping in for a little pre- or postgame inspiration from an exotic libation, or guys in rumpled Kentucky Derby sportcoats buying bourbon flights for girls they just met. Weeknights they come in twos and threes, couples lingering over snowcone-like Mai Tais, friends making plans and shopping lists. Velveteen Rabbit seems to have already figured out that the best way to get welcomed to the neighborhood is to make the neighborhood feel welcome.