A bird’s nest, by design and necessity, can be hard to see. But the second you stumble upon one, so camouflaged, clever and cute, you’d be a fool not to peek in. Cardinal — a little parlor of drinks and snacks south of Grant Park — seems purposefully situated to evoke such a surprise.
Quietly tucked off to one side of the Beacon development at the end of Grant Street, Cardinal is the hatchling of the proprietors of Third Street Goods, a neighborhood market that doubles as the bar’s own personal beer, wine and spirits cooler; fruit and vegetable stand; cheesemonger; and boulangerie.
One of the more thoughtful and original concepts to emerge from Atlanta’s dynamic food-and-drink community, Cardinal allows you to sip a rose vermouth spritzed up with seltzer and lemon while marveling over a Georgia Summer Fruit Salad of Pearson peaches, Narrow Way Farm blueberries, honey and fresh herbs, all provisioned from the petite grocery store behind the curtain.
The collaborative handiwork of Holli Medley and Kathyrn DiMenichi, who met while working at Leon’s Full Service in Decatur, Cardinal is a welcome, genteel perch that offers respite from the hubbub and disorder of the Beltline boom. Demure yet theatrical, it is part cafe, part curio cabinet, part neighborhood bar — and 100 percent advocate for local growers, makers, and other food-related business people.
Let me be clear what I mean by “neighborhood bar.”
“Cheers” this is not. There are no blaring TVs, no hot dogs and hamburgers, Miller Lite or PBR. On the contrary, there’s a haunting list of vermouths, sherries and the occasional Swiss quinquina; a half-dozen bright and satisfying original cocktails; some nonalcoholic concoctions made with peaches, lavender, mint or CBD; a few things to eat on baguettes (sardines, cheese, butter, mustard, jam).
To find the elusive Cardinal, you must pivot through or behind Third Street Goods and stroll down a peacock-blue corridor decorated with a pair of gilt frames: one a baroque still life of flowers and fruit, the other a piece of needlework depicting a trio of red birds. At the end of the hallway, you see a pink-triangle niche filled with fresh flora and a flickering votive.
Step over the threshold, and in your mind, you’re suddenly somewhere else. Not Atlanta. Not a new retail development. Picture a hidden boite with camel-colored leather banquettes; a gorgeous, U-shaped walnut bar (replete with a cozy, desklike section fitted with two normal-level chairs for a more down-to-earth tete-a-tete); and spiffy, butler-style bottle service (Collins glasses filled with statement ice cubes, on a tray with drink-appropriate accouterments).
I suggest starting with a Cardinal. The elegant house cocktail of gin and dry vermouth reads like a Southern vesper or martini: Made with muscadine wine and a touch of honey, it’s faintly floral and very sultry. The Slick Ricky (mezcal, thyme, bay leaf, lime, salt, pepper) is reminiscent of a classic daiquiri, only with smoke. I found the Amiright a bit flooring — the dominant flavor is the anise-flavored Levantine spirit arak. That said, it’s unlike anything else in town.
As you empty your glass, you may begin to feel peckish.
I love the smoked Portuguese sardines with baguette, a tiny “dude” (aka quail) egg, giardiniera, a dab of grainy mustard, and pungent parsley salad. The thing about eating canned fish in public is that while I'm gnashing the smelly little creatures like a ravenous cat, I sometimes wonder if the people around me are holding their nose.
Marinated olives and feta, perfumed with bay leaves and orange peel, arrive in an opulent crystal bowl and go well with a dry Spanish sherry or Italian vermouth. While on the topic of vermouth, I’d love to see Cardinal’s barkeeps dig a little deeper for bottles I can’t find at my package store: Dolin and Carpano Di Antica are both wonderful, as cocktail components or on the rocks. (I keep the former in my fridge for martinis, the latter for Manhattans and Negronis.) But I can’t imagine ordering a bottle.
You may spread your Root Baking Co. bread with your choice of (mostly Southern) cheeses and various accompaniments. While I was crazy about that peach salad (paired with a glass of no-longer-on-the-menu Tempus Fugit kina), the best savory bite coming out of the kitchen is the mortadella snack sandwiches. Basically, mortadella is a 50-cent word for fancy bologna. Here it’s seared, smeared with mustard and tucked into potato rolls. And delicious.
Delightful in most every way, Cardinal is where I fly to gather my thoughts over a cool glass of BroVo pink vermouth — or to trade gossip with a friend. Easily one of the city’s best bars, it’s decidedly more civilized than most.
It would be a cardinal sin not to seek out Cardinal.
6 p.m.-midnight Wednesdays-Thursdays; 6 p.m.-1 a.m. Fridays-Saturdays. 1039 Grant St., Suite B40A, Atlanta. thirdstreetgoods.com.
Recommended: Mortadella snack sandwiches. Baguette with cheese and accompaniments. Sardines with baguette. Peach salad. Olives and feta.
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