If you were faced with a choice of cocktails between the Solar Flare – the name an indication of a technique used while making the drink – and the Pale Blue Dot – a rum and pear homage to our home sweet home – which would you choose? This was the question I considered one weekday evening in December while lounging in a chartreuse upholstered turn-of-the-century chair at Bar Argos. Musing over the pearlescent menu I couldn’t help but think that while I love each seasonal cocktail release at Argos, the fall/winter theme – Cosmos – might yet be my favorite.
I settled on the fiery option, intrigued by the inclusion of Zirbenz along with Molé Negro, Reposado Tequila, Agave Nectar, and Grapefruit. Just beneath the price was a shaded circle, which foreshadowed that my drink would be “what?!” according to Mel’s Scale of Weirdness. The metric was developed by Argos’ first bar manager, Melody Faraday, and it’s remained a unique method guests use to navigate the adventurous slate of drinks.
Bar manager Tippy Ard described the genesis of their beverages: “It’s a very collaborative effort. For each menu release we have two R&D meetings where the entire bar staff gets together on a Saturday for about three hours – we try to keep them to three hours, which is hard for us – and we workshop cocktails, we bicker over themes, we go back and forth over what this cocktail really means, and then ultimately, it’s up to me and the other bar manager, Nick, to make sure the menu comes out balanced and is priced accordingly.”
The finished product has three main sections: Borrowed & Reborn – classics and modern classics, but with a spin; the seasonal menu – which provides a focus for what could otherwise be an extensive selection; and Old School Players – more reserved drinks from seasonal menus past which patrons loved. It also features a glossary which details the more obscure ingredients (such as Cardamaro, a wine based amaro infused with cardoon (not cardamom) and blessed thistle, then aged in oak).
Argos’ beautifully designed and detailed handout is an integral part of the guest experience. “We love talking to people behind the bar about what everything is, but sometimes we don’t have time to do that or you don’t have time to listen to it,” explained Ard. “We are finding new, fun, interesting spirits all the time. We find something, we learn all about it, and then we’re like ‘everyone has to drink this!’ So it’s nice to have this glossary because we don’t expect you to know what all these things are on here; we just want you to try them.” My experience while my drink was prepared underscored this sentiment, as two of the four elements in the beverage were detailed in the glossary.
My Solar Flare arrives in a petite stemmed coupe – the liquid a blushing pink – garnished with a flamed grapefruit peel. As I raise the glass for a sip I smell the citrus first; the beverage is softly sweet, with a slight spice on the finish – I’m pleased with my choice. “What we really want is for you to feel good about the cocktail you’re drinking and for the cocktail, you’re drinking to make you feel good,” Ard emphasized. “If at any point that’s not happening, we want to know about it.” With that said, how do guests fare when they’re craving something more familiar from the start?
“We try to treat our wine list as a lifeline for people,” Ard said, going on to recount guests who simply wish to request a varietal. “So we don’t take as many risks with our beer and wine as we do with our cocktails.” But the impetus to be inclusive to all drinkers extends beyond the bar staff’s compassion for their patrons. “We’re a hotel bar,” she reminded me. “Not every bar has to be everything for everyone, but good hotel bars are accommodating to everybody.”
Indeed, the upscale bar fills out the first floor of the Argos Inn, a 10-room boutique hotel situated at the base of East Martin Luther King Jr. Street, just two blocks from the Commons. It is housed in a 19th century Greek Revival building with a long history: previously a private mansion, an apartment building, Duncan Hine’s headquarters, and an office complex. Today, the original plaster crown-molding and restored brick walls collaborate with an elaborate glass chandelier and mirrored bar to transport patrons somewhere new altogether.
“I liked the idea of making a place that’s right in downtown Ithaca but sort of feels like you’re somewhere else – a little bit more exotic, or a different place or a different time period,” reflected owner Avi Smith. The same inspiration carried over to the design of the Argos Warehouse, a sumptuous space situated at the back of the Printing Press building, which is itself located adjacent to the Inn. Long, low velvet tufted couches hug the walls, Moroccan rugs warm the floor, and a bar-height wooden table (able to be retracted to the ceiling in case extra standing room is needed) stretches the length of the room.
The spirits are situated in ornate carved wooden shelves alongside a selection of wine, beer, and bubbly on tap. With the addition of table service and light after-dinner fare, the Warehouse expands on the Bar’s sensibilities while elevating the experience.
“We’re trying to be this beacon where no matter how long you’ve been away you come in and you have a little home here – we remember you,” said Ard. She pointed out that in Homer’s “The Odyssey,” Argos is the name of the dog who patiently waits for Odysseus to return home. “At the same time, we like being that escape for people. You walk in and it’s something you don’t see in Ithaca; you go to the back patio and this might be in Europe.”
And if it’s winter 2019, you settle down with the menu and explore the cosmos. At the end of the day, a hotel bar is the main intersection point between the hotel and the place where it’s located. At Argos – whether at the Bar, Inn, or Warehouse – they’ve found the balance between comfort and curiosity, the past and the present, home and away.
Food For Thought is a monthly column highlighting the hidden gems of the culinary world across Tompkins County. Sarah Barden is a dedicated foodie who, along with her husband, shares her passion with neighbors and visitors through their business Ithaca is Foodies Culinary Tours. Find more information at IthacaIsFoodies.com.
Correction: An earlier version of this story listed the incorrect ingredients for the Solar Flare. The story has been updated to include the correct ingredients.
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