Labor of Love: A Review of Union 50

Gorgeously housed in a repurposed bricklayers union hall off of Mass Ave, the restaurant rolls up its sleeves and delivers.
T-shirted bartenders hustle up Hemingway daiquiris and Miller High Lifes against a wall of backlit liquor bottles. There is a community table, of course. And a small stage near the entrance hosts live music while tabletop shuffleboard and Skee-Ball arcade games occupy another corner of this rambling dining room laid out like a Montessori class for hipsters. But if you want to know where the real action is at Union 50, Cunningham Restaurant Group’s natty new spot for broad-shouldered American fare, look no further than the bustling pick-up window into the kitchen.
Recessed lights make the little pass-through seem like a stainless-steel performance space, a prep area under the watch of veteran chef Layton Roberts (formerly of Meridian Restaurant & Bar and Mesh on Mass, another Cunningham venture). One night shortly after the restaurant’s July opening, I sat and puzzled over what I recognized as an entire upturned pig leg, from hip to hoof, mounted on a special stand and placed on display just outside the kitchen window. Were the meat Pilates just for decoration—a swine version of the fishnet leg lamp in A Christmas Story? I got my answer when someone came out of the kitchen and sliced off a small strip of the haunch, which turned out to be a rare “Acorn Edition” of La Quercia dry-cured ham, basically meltingly sweet, nutty prosciutto on demand: No, the leg was just Union 50’s down-to-earth version of dinner and a show.

You can nibble between dangerously smooth sips of the gin-based Big Hero, fragrant with lemon, honey, and thyme.

The theatrics play well with a menu that explores the blue collar–gourmet realm of kimchi meatloaf and espresso-porter pork barbecue. A couple of dishes suffer from overconceptualization, such as a chilaquiles poutine that groans under the weight of cheese curds, pulled pork, crema, avocado, and an optional fried egg. And a wonderful pork tenderloin sliced rare and flavored with bourbon-mustard-maple glaze doesn’t really need the added gimmick of a soggy apple-mostarda waffle.
The fashionable plating does work, however, in the case of a salmon-lox starter that balances meaty curls of the fish with pink pickled onions, potatoes, and whole-grain mustard—a perfect salty-starchy-sweet combination. And an opulently glazed ribeye cap perched fat as a filet mignon atop Robuchon potatoes also deliciously pulls together a list of oddball components, including a slaw of shaved fennel and pea shoots and a hushpuppy-sized bone-marrow bonbon that you pop in your mouth whole to get the full unctuous benefit of the liquid center.
At a restaurant housed in a former bricklayers union hall (the Trowel Trades nameplate remains etched in the front of the Mass Ave–adjacent building), the more practical and rooted dishes seem a better fit. Charcuterie arranged on long-handled wooden boards includes you-pick combinations of morsels like candied pork belly and a faux salami made out of fig pulp that (though too cloying to eat by itself) takes the edge off the herbal creaminess of Humboldt Fog, an essential choice among the cheeses. You can nibble between dangerously smooth sips of the gin-based Big Hero, fragrant with lemon, honey, and thyme, or The Californian via Oaxaca, a mezcal-heavy tequila concoction.
Addictive hand-cut fries, customized to order with a choice of styles (truffle oil to duck fat–and-rosemary) and sauces (aioli to beer cheese), arrive in metal pails and disappear quickly. They’re crunchy on the outside, nearly fluffy on the inside, and too proud to call themselves frites. They’re also part of Union 50’s late-night bar menu served until the wee-hours closing time, that untapped twilight of cravings that come after a night on the town and before the drive home.
Catering to downtown’s discriminating fourth-meal crowd is a stroke of genius for a restaurant group known for making solid commercial choices that work. (In addition to Mesh, Indy-based Cunningham owns Bru Burger Bar, Boulder Creek Dining Company, Charbonos, and the cookie-cuttered Stone Creek Dining Company chain.) Union 50 looks decidedly different from the other members of its restaurant family and feels more like a risk. But if Skee-Ball and the trowel trades can undergo a transformation, maybe their foreman can, too.
Union 50
620 N. East St., 317-610-0234,
Hours Mon.–Thurs. 4:30 p.m.–1 a.m., Fri.–Sat. 4:30 p.m.–2 a.m., Sun. 3–11 p.m.