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Middle Eastern Street Food Meets Classic Cocktails at Vesper Lounge

When I told Amy to meet me at Seventh and Grant for dinner, she asked why I was abandoning our plan to go somewhere for Middle Eastern cuisine. I wasn't so much abandoning it, I explained, as I was modifying the plan. Vesper Lounge did, in fact, include Middle Eastern elements on its menu. And if I wanted to get didactic, several of the items — falafel, hummus, pita — had their origins in the ancient market fare of Syria, Lebanon and even Egypt. But I didn't want to be didactic; I mostly wanted an excuse to grab a couple of cocktails and some filling bar food.

Frank and Jaqueline Bonanno created Vesper from the bones of the old Lancer Lounge in 2012, after the place sandwiched between Mizuna and Bones was seized by the state for failure to pay taxes. Some renovations added comfy booths and a hodgepodge of decor that seems somehow vaguely Moorish, despite Mexican accents, mod fabrics and antique chandeliers. The bar itself didn't change much other than getting cleaned up a little — unless you count the addition of pre-mixed cocktails on tap, something that wouldn't have sold well at the Lancer, where patrons were likely looking for more bang for the buck.
The place still retains vestiges of its dive-bar days, but now it's more of a neighborhood joint, although not exactly a place for young couples with kids; the jarring sound of a baby crying turned out to be nothing more than a noisy hinge on the bathroom door. The waitstaff, bartenders and kitchen crew were all in good spirits, making as much chatter as the few guests in the dining area at a transitional time between happy hour and dinner. The first order of business was drinks: $7 for a pint and a well shot (Wild Turkey rye, this time) took care of that. A cup of Moroccan bar nuts — deep-fried chickpeas, actually — dusted with a finger-staining spice blend quelled the initial surge of hunger.
We managed to slip in an order of dips and pita just under the happy hour deadline —a ramekin each of hummus and baba ganoush surrounded by pillowy, diner-style pita (the kind without the pocket) — and then ordered a couple of sandwiches. My shaved lamb and Amy's falafel came wrapped in more of that squishy pita and both were generously slathered in tzatziki and stuffed with feta. Rough-cut veggies must have been what the menu referred to as fattoush. The lamb and falafel were both well-seasoned and tasty, housemade versions of more-or-less Mediterranean street food by way of Midwestern or Southern locales, where people say jigh-rows when talking about gyros. The spices were bold and plentiful, even on the stunningly crispy fries, which coated my fingertips in more yellow powder.

This week didn't take me on a quest to the outer reaches of the suburbs in search of strip-mall gems. Instead, it deposited me in a familiar setting with the kind of food that's been translated from its Arabic and Greek roots into something that's commonplace in diners, bars and food courts across America. Vesper's versions are fresh and carefully prepared; only the pita is outsourced. But that pleasingly downscale touch is more of a playful nod to our fast-food heritage (as underscored by the menu's references to John Belushi's Olympia Restaurant) than it is a culinary misstep, an acknowledgement that Vesper's offerings aren't meant to be viewed — or consumed — earnestly. After all, it's just a bar, where serious notions should be shed at the door — and we all drink to that.

Next week I can get back to more intrepid wandering.

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