By Christopher Squier
Grinnellians’ bar hopping options recently expanded with the opening of the Canary Bar, an underground bar and lounge housed in Grinnell’s newest epicurean adventure, Prairie Canary.
The restaurant and bar moved into its location on Main Street near the corner of 5th Avenue about four months ago, replacing Bourbon Street and Voodoo Lounge, which closed a year ago.
The atmosphere at the Canary Bar is calm and comfortable, with the open space allowing for plenty of room to chat. The concrete floor and brick walls give the room an unfinished look that fits perfectly with the casual atmosphere.
I stopped by the bar Tuesday night to speak with Prairie Canary owner Carly Groben. The place was predictably quiet for a Tuesday—aside from us, there were only a couple of bar-goers from out of town, visiting Grinnell both for a basketball game and the delicious Prairie beverages. Friday and Saturday nights tend to be the busiest, but Wednesdays also have a surprisingly good turnout, according to Groben.
Although the lower level bar is consistent with the open, spare look of the restaurant overall, Groben explained that there was a particular rationale behind its subdued style.
“Down here, with the brick walls, we went for a speakeasy [look] or an old-fashioned, lower-level underground lounge or bar,” Groben said. “I like a real clean, minimalist aesthetic in general.”
I talked with Groben over a Juniper Blue cocktail, one of Front of House Manager Chaim Jenson’s inventions. The delicious dark blue drink features blueberry infused gin, local Midwestern Cedar Ridge limoncello, wild blueberry juice, simple syrup and citrus, with a crunchy lemon-sugar rim.
Jenson got the idea for his creation from the similarities between juniper berries, which create gin when fermented, and blueberries.
“There are a lot of people that have an aversion to gin,” Jenson said. “I really wanted to do a gin drink that people would try.”
The Juniper Blue lived up to its hype. As one of the most popular cocktails at the bar, the drink really does make gin more appetizing than ever before. The sweet, fresh flavor of the berries was most prominent, while the sugar crust rim and lemon rind swirl gave the drink an appealing flair.
Another drink recommended to me as a favorite of bar regulars was the Elderflower Cosmopolitan, a mixture of Clearheart Vodka, St. Germaine, sugar, citrus and cranberry juice.
Both of these recommended cocktails, like much of the menu, contain local alcohols. The limoncello and Clearheart rum, gin and vodka come out of the Cedar Ridge Vineyards, Winery and Distillery in Swisher, Iowa.
“We use local spirits as much as we can,” Groben said. “Templeton Rye, Cedar Ridge—we have local wines and beers as well.”
Some of those beers—which are included in the new “thicker than water” happy hour, daily from 5 to 9 p.m.—are brewed at Newton, Iowa’s Madhouse Brewing Company, owned by Groben’s brother Mason. The Canary Bar is just now introducing a Madhouse Beer so new it’s not even on the menu yet: the Madhouse Imperial Stout. It’s a dark, rich beer that is both foamy and delicious.
In addition to drinks, the full restaurant menu is offered downstairs, along with seven appetizers, advertised as “bar bites,” and three burgers. I tasted both the Fried Brussels Sprouts and the Mango Chicken Spring Rolls. Although the Brussels sprouts were a little over-salted and coated in an almost impenetrable layer of parmesan cheese, the Mango Chicken Spring Rolls were a delightful addition to my visit.
The spring rolls are served with a chili lime aioli-style dipping sauce that combats the jalapeño spice of the rolls. Fried to a piquant perfection, they crunch appetizingly in your mouth, mixing the tropical flavor of mango with the rest of the delectable spring roll flavor combination.
Otherwise, the Hand-Cut French Fries and the Pot Stickers both look like tantalizing options, perfect snacks for the hungry bar-goer.
As the bar is still a new presence in town, the Grinnell College student body hasn’t been as keen to brave the wintery trek to the establishment as other visitors.
“I think we’re getting a lot of people associated with the College—not as many students—but faculty and people from town,” Groben said. “When we do get students, I feel like they’re coming out to splurge. We’d love to have more students.”
In addition to its assorted libations, the Canary Bar also offers live entertainment. Grinnell students, such as Katie In ’13, have performed at the bar, as well as the faculty jazz band. Upcoming events include performances by jazz vocalist Max Wellman on Feb. 23 and Grinnell alumna Roxi Copland ’05 on April 20.