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New Bar Humbug Is a Refuge Within a Refuge

Queen City Nerve nightlife writer Aerin Spruill smiles against a brick background
Aerin Spruill

Sitting on the cozy patio of Humbug nestled inside Refuge, a “five-room limited engagement hotel” at the corner of Central Avenue and Heath Court, drinking a well-crafted cocktail, I’m reminded of the quirky nature of Plaza Midwood. 

Or should I say, the Plaza Midwood area. See, Refuge sits at that convergence of neighborhoods that makes it hard to know where you’re actually standing. Technically, the hotel is in the Belmont neighborhood. Just across Hawthorne sits The Thirsty Beaver Saloon, which is in Plaza Midwood. And just across Central Avenue is Moo & Brew, which is in Elizabeth. 

But I digress. 

The area has been going through its share of growing pains in recent years. Sure, we’ve suffered losses of neighborhood favorites like Elizabeth Billiards and, most recently, Soul Gastrolounge (which has ripped a hole in many a heart and left us butt-hurt). But we’ve also gained some brag-worthy newbies like Two Buck Saloon, Calle Sol, Morningside Pub, and at least for now, Humbug, all of which offer some glimmer of hope in not losing the neighborhood completely.

We ordered two Lemon Drop the Mic shooters ($7), one Sour to Rule Them All & In the Darkness Bind Them ($13) for me, and a Let It Rip ($13) for him. Humbug is a pop-up concept so named not because the intricate libations are at risk of conjuring a “Bah humbug!” but because of local visionaries Larry Suggs and Andrew School’s, “Irreverent approach to cocktails.” At least that’s how Larry put it as he sat our shots down in front of us. 

My mouth watered but I wasn’t sure if it was in a good way.

“Always delicious, never pretentious,” surrounding the logo on a coaster dampened by the water that rested in front of me. Though confused as to why someone would spend $200 a night for a 219-square-foot hotel room without a TV, I wasn’t confused as to why Humbug had me at hello — or why that slogan couldn’t be a better fit for a concept that felt like it’d been open for more than the three days it had existed when we walked in. 

A neon sign donning “cocktails” glows in front of a colorful tiger-patterned wallpaper backdrop, and welcomed us as we rounded the corner. At night, the dimly lit bar with twinkling candles and the buzz of conversation quickly drew me to the right even when my nosey urge to try the door of the first hotel room wanted to pull me left.

Larry and Andrew were busy behind the bar, but not too busy to acknowledge our entry with a mutual head nod. We popped a squat on a stool and admired the decor. A few mismatching tables and chairs scattered, easy-to-maintain greenery placed on the floating shelves alongside a Fernet Branca sign and a few tchotchkes. It was just enough to look modern and elevated (without trying too hard) while also maintaining the approachable homeyness of a neighborhood hangout. 

I turned to my boyfriend with a childlike excitement stirring inside of me, “I can’t wait to come back here already.”

Now y’all know there was a time that the only way you’d get me to venture outside of my favorite watering hole would be kicking and screaming. And here I was, five minutes in, experiencing a feeling you only get walking into your favorite bar.

Normally, the sight of a shot produces a visceral reaction that could easily turn into a trip to the restroom. Not to mention the name of the shooter reminded me of a night in Columbia when I learned the hard way that not everyone’s Lemon Drop was made the same. To my surprise, Lemon Drop the Mic restored faith that the perfect shot for me, in fact, exists.

The cocktails that followed kept our attention from the first sip to the last, only sharing a single taste of our choices with one another. Usually, one of us experiences “cocktail envy,” the feeling that you ordered the wrong thing upon tasting someone else’s drink. But this time, we were beyond content, which usually is a telltale sign that we could choose a cocktail completely at random without fear of disappointment. And that’s harder to come by than some realize.

“I only wish they had some food,” I said to my boyfriend searching for a fork, small plate, crumpled napkin with a stain, or any other remnants of a snack on other patrons’ tables. He sighed, annoyed that, one, I couldn’t just be satisfied with what Humbug had to offer and, two, that I was thinking about food — again. Here he goes with a reality check, crushing my hopes and bringing my search to an end. 

Little did he know, Humbug was “cooking” up a collab with our friends at Counter-, where patrons will get to experience the culinary wild cards of Chef Sam Hart for a steal: $55 a person compared to the $155 a person price tag on Counter-’s upcoming Community Matters Pop-Up. 

Brah(-vo), Humbug!

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