Union 50 Joins the Cunningham Family
If you ever tagged along with your parents to the spaghetti supper at the Pipefitters Local 211 or dropped in after Sunday services for the monthly pancake breakfast at the Knights of Columbus, you can understand the charms of the old dining hall. There was something magical about those big open rooms with high ceilings, fans twirling overhead, and that massive, well-stocked kitchen at one end where you could stick your head in and watch the old ladies in aprons whipping up your dinner. If your uncle’s polka band was playing that night—all the better.
While no one would ever confuse chef Layton Roberts’s menu of dolled-up poutine, charcuterie boards, and fusion comfort creations with the fish fries and chili pots of yore, the Cunningham Restaurant Group has retained the essential charm of those Rust Belt social clubs at Union 50 (620 N. East St., 317-610-0234), the latest and most idiosyncratic enterprise of a brand that is rapidly expanding into Ohio and Kentucky. They even left the old Trowel Trades etching on the exterior above the patio facing East Street. Just don’t confuse this with the restaurant’s front door. The real entrance—and a soaring wood and glass grotto of a vestibule it is—sits around the corner to the north of the building where a curvy, well-landscaped brick walkway has brightened up the alley considerably.
The interior is equally impressive for its size and its postmodern pastiche of decor elements. Cleaned up are the terrazzo-like floor and the old glazed block walls and glass block windows, which are matched with suspended panels fitted with rustic industrial lights. But plenty of unfinished wood, earthy textiles, and metal have been added to give the place a contemporary tenor, especially evident in the bar that runs most of the length of the place, mounted by a series of interlocked shelves where showcased craft liquors glow in gauzy light through more glass block. A couple of old skee-ball machines in the corner add to the vintage fun. Retro-styled padded stools swivel at the bar while high-set communal tables stretch through a dining room carpeted and dressed up with sweeping banquettes. Unfortunately, metal and leather stools at the communal tables, while nice to look at, offer less than comfy lumbar support, and, on the night we stopped in, their short, hard backs meant we were mostly leaning against that table to save our spines.
Just like those midcentury union halls, the kitchen sits at the far end with both a tiny diner-style pass-through and a much larger cut-out that glimmers with the light of an open hearth. Standing sentry most nights at a smaller prep table out front is chef Roberts himself, dolling on the last drop of sauce or perching a tangle of microgreens on a rib-eye “cap,” the well-marbled muscle around a rib-eye’s middle, or a duck breast served up in the style of short ribs. Having returned to Mesh earlier this year after a two-year stint at Meridian, the 32-year-old chef has put together what is unarguably his most playful and creative menu to date.
Roberts’ dishes are grouped into somewhat eccentric categories ranging from “Petit” to “Bistro” to “Grand,” which don’t always compute into “small,” “medium,” and “large.” Nonetheless, almost everything we ordered, from hand-cut duck-fat fries to sweet bacon dates perched on honey-sweetened ricotta to delicately pink pork tenderloin atop crisp, fluffy waffles, showed just how much Roberts has learned in the Cunninghams’ various kitchens—and how polished the kitchen is after only a few weeks in business, though our dishes came out at a decidedly leisurely pace. Craft cocktails such as the “Grand Herb” and the “Other Woman” were just as accomplished—and often just as unhurried—mingling aromatics and bitters with gin, vodka, and bourbon in good measure.
No supper club would be complete without live music, which seems right in such a chummy, social venue. And the growing clientele of regulars—downtowners and devotees of the city’s growing food scene—seems ripe for a new place that’s as much about the atmosphere as the cuisine. Recent acts have included Nashville’s Logan Brill, Rebecca Rego and the Trainmen, and “one-man jam band” Derick Howard. However, the addition of a Wednesday open-mic night, which debuted the evening we dined, meant we had to strain to keep our dinner conversation going over acts that don’t yet have the sophistication of the pros. But just as those old social halls hosted your cousin’s jazz combo or the neighbor kid’s garage band, Union 50 has enough cheeky charm to cover both the high and the low, the old-school and the forward-thinking. We were happy to have the polish on our plates.