Ithaca’s newest bar is Nowhere Special

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Many new businesses in downtown Ithaca have been using social media and signage to build excitement for their grand openings, from the cursive neon sign for Angelhearts Diner and the Instagram sneak peeks of renovations at Bike Bar to the pink donut mural in Press Bay Court harkening the arrival of One Ring Donuts. But one establishment has taken a different approach.

The nondescript storefront at 114 West State St. is a well-weathered grey – the same color left behind after Artistic Point Tattoo moved out of the space several months ago – and a simple metal sign hangs in the window.

Nowhere Special Libations Parlor opened quietly in late August. Despite the low-profile façade, owner James Dean said word of mouth has been strong.

Inside, there are a few low tables up front, but most seating is found at the single bartop that stretches the length of the narrow space. The walls are a deep burgundy and decorations are simple, which serves to position the drinks and the company as the bar’s focus.

“I like the idea of being an escape,” Dean said. “You know, giving someone a half hour or an hour to avoid the outside world. Come in here to have a fun conversation. Just going back to the old school of a bar being a place where you can just relax.”

A single-page, home-printed menu details a modest selection of cocktails, half a dozen cans and a similar number of beers on draft. Though the list is short, it is not permanent.

“I lean on a high rotational both on cocktail lists and beers,” Dean said.
He intends to always make room for a few classics – at last visit, these included a smoky Negroni and a Dark & Stormy with Kraken Black Rum – but the rest will rotate frequently, inspired by the season, cocktail trends, or conversations with customers.

For fall, he’s added the Jolly Pumpkin: a tall drink featuring Black Bottle blended scotch, a simple syrup made with Southern Tier Brewing Company’s Pumking ale, lime juice and ginger beer.

“I’m not breaking any boundaries, but [I’m] trying to offer something a little bit different to my clientele,” he said.

At the end of the bar stand twin slushie machines, which Dean is particularly excited to put to use.

“It’s a frozen cocktail with more ice in it,” he said. “You can still do a nice [drink]. It doesn’t have to be dulled down just because it’s in an ice machine.”

The establishment’s location will influence the menu as well.

“I plan on having cocktails on draft coming up because we’re right across from the State Theater so you could ebb and flow a group pretty fast,” he said.

Dean entered the service industry 13 years ago working the door at the former Pixel Lounge in Collegetown. He worked his way up to bar manager, a position that inspired aspects of his future business.

“Jim, the owner, was really good about just allowing me to order whatever I wanted as long as I could sell it. That allowed me to be very experimentational and get into the backgrounds of cocktails and evolve that way,” he said.

His subsequent position managing the Tavern at Ithaca Coffee Company led to a similar exploration of beer. Most recently, Dean assisted Liquid State Brewing Company to open its taproom on West Green Street.

“I love being a part of this industry,” Dean said. “Working with other businesses and working for other people sometimes is stagnating because you’re trying to build their dream and you have a vision that gets put on the back burner. This is freeing. I genuinely have a lot of passion when it comes to spirits and beer, and I hope my customer base sees that and they get energized as well.”

After dreaming about his own business for years, he finally made this leap with help from Ashley Cake and Dave Thomas, owners of nearby bar The Watershed.

“Ashley’s been a friend for years, and they were really instrumental in getting the bravado to start this,” Dean said. “They helped me out with a business plan, costs sheets and making sure that the plan was viable.”

Now that Nowhere Special’s doors are open, Dean anticipates the collaboration with surrounding businesses will continue. He encourages patrons to bring in food from Thai Basil and Gorgers and notes that while the beverage programs at neighboring businesses are different, there is a hope that together they will promote a more mature drinking scene.

“That’s why I wanted to use the term Libations Parlor - because I want this to be a little bit different experience,” Dean said. “Getting people to try little things that open up their palates and then they want to come back and try that again.”

As for the first half of the name?

“Cards on the table. … I stole it from a Supersucker song!” laughed Dean before continuing. “It’s the idea of trying to be elusive. I like the idea of plain exterior, trying to hide in plain sight without being too showy. Once you come in here, I’ll let everyone decide on their own how special it really is.”

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.

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