Rocks Star: A Review of Thunderbird

In a revamped 1950s music club, the establishment offers craft cocktails, Southern fare, and Fountain Square’s coolest new hangout.

Our glasses—short, tall, stemmed—cover the plank-wood table like a small cityscape of barware. In the dusky glow of Fountain Square’s newest watering hole, Thunderbird, we sip craft cocktails such as an iced pour of Four Roses ripened with creme de cassis, layered with flavors (like deep-red berries), and sweetened just enough that the concoction lives up to its name: Bourbon Redemption. The pale-peach Corpus Callosum, garnished with a thatch of mint leaves, matches the smoky intensity of Sombra mezcal with the spicy-orange notes of Clement Creole Shrubb—a cool, crisp punch right in the throat. And for every delightfully boozy Stan Halen, a corn-whiskey sipper poured into a delicate coupe glass that warms all the way down, there is a drink as ornery and amber as the Sleeveless Jesus, which suggests the entire contents of a vintage metal first-aid kit poured into one glass, with a grapefruit twist—an acquired taste.
The bar’s frontman and part owner, veteran ’tender Joshua Gonzales, created Thunderbird’s drink menu with an eye toward offbeat gems (like a rye that’s rare enough that he knows exactly how many bottles remain in the case). He divided the choices into Classics, Modern Classics, Refreshing, and Boozy. Some of the quaffs are poured over nearly artistic cubes of clear ice; all are contained to a simple, one-page list. His staff isn’t much for theatrics, either. Sure, they occasionally double-fist the cocktail shakers like members of an overzealous percussion section, but their method feels more relaxed and approachable than what we remember from either the tie-and-vest era at Libertine or the mystical mixology behind the sticks at The Ball & Biscuit, both former employers of Gonzales.
If the bespoke cocktail trend is ready to settle itself down and get serious about pouring quality liquor without the gimmickry, Thunderbird—a former 1950s rock ’n’ roll club with a honkytonk vibe and the soul of a speakeasy—is the perfect setting. Bare bulbs dangle artistically from black cords (arranged as such by designer Nikki Sutton) against a grout-dusted brick wall on one side of the open 90-seat room, while a gutted and deconstructed upright piano is embedded in the entryway, its wooden back carved with ancient graffiti. The stage-lit bar is a thing of beauty, with an inset ceiling of exposed metal joists that looks like mirrored pressed tin, and knotty repurposed wood surfaces paired with curly iron joints creating a sort of steampunk–meets–hunting shack aesthetic.

Salazar assembled a menu of modified Southern dishes that are surprisingly complex for the bar-centric format.

Though Gonzales runs the night-to-night business, Thunderbird—which opened in early February—benefits from an all-star cast of backers. Restaurateur Ed Rudisell (Siam Square, Black Market, Rook) and developer Jon Altman share ownership as well, along with Rook chef Carlos Salazar (who earned his stripes at Oakleys Bistro and Pizzology before redirecting the culinary destiny of blue-collared Fountain Square). As consulting chef, Salazar assembled a menu of modified Southern dishes that are surprisingly complex for the bar-centric format. Fat, butter-poached shrimp rest on a bed of properly creamy-but-stiff white-cheddar grits, sauced with tangy salsa verde to give this comfort-food standard a south-of-the-border refresher. A deliciously gloppy (and utterly un-sharable in polite company) plate of biscuits and duck-neck gravy, peppered to perfection, comes topped with the yolky lava of a crunchy-edged fried egg. And a three-layer grilled pimiento-cheese sandwich, almost unwieldy in its butter-drenched enormity, is stacked with thick tomato slices and crinkle-cut pickles.
There are some misses along the way. Deep-fried black-eyed peas, heaped into a large bowl, seem more suitable for a garnish or topping than a hands-on snack. And the fried hominy, bless its heart, offers just too many empty, chewy, batter-dipped calories drizzled in stripes of avocado mayo to distract us from the real reason we endure the standing-room-mostly crowds, the communal bathroom sinks for both “hombres” and “damas,” and Gonzales’s occasional singing out loud—which is to drink our way to enlightenment, one top-shelf bourbon at a time.
1127 Shelby St., 317-974-9580,
Hours Tues.–Thurs. 4 p.m.–midnight, Fri.–Sat. 4 p.m.–2 a.m., Sun. 4–10 p.m.

This article appeared in the June 2014 issue.