R&D opened this October, after being closed for two and a half months as it was being renovated in the back right corner. The guitar, upright bass, saxophone, and drum set pulse out a melody that’s both sexy and soft, much like the interior of this newly opened bar. “Go to E–minor,” coos one of the musicians.
There is often live jazz at R&D—a bumping bar right in the hub of Fishtown, whose minimalistic, mysterious name stands for “Research and Development.” Musicians can be found playing roughly once a week, normally on Wednesdays, which luckily happens to be tonight. The presence of live music is unsurprising in a place like this—it matches the vibes of every other detail in the bar, all of which are authentically sultry. The room is open but intimate, with the retro square bar occupying the majority of the space in the center. The furniture is all dark wood and black booths, while the light is a vibrant pink that could make anybody's skin look sleeker and softer. It pours out of geometric orbs interspersed across the lowish–hanging ceiling—think big bubbles, but make it sexy.
R&D opened this October, after being closed for two and a half months as it was being renovated. Before there was R&D, there was Root, a wine bar and sister restaurant to Suraya. While much of the food from this sister restaurant remains a staple of the R&D bar snack menu, Root closed in August largely due to the small size of its kitchen. To partner Aaron Deary, the switch to a committed cocktail bar made much more strategic sense—and so the space was quickly converted, and the bar hasn’t looked back since.
The three small plates are brought out by Deary, a charming Irishman with tattooed arms and a tangible passion for his work. The heirloom popcorn is flavored with togarashi and lime, and is the perfect quintessential light bar snack. The hummus, served with pita chips and cashew dukkah, is a subtle twist on a beloved classic. And the whipped ricotta, served with date syrup, almonds, and flax crackers, is almost addictive. While you might come to R&D for the drinks, you will stay for the food.
R&D shares much of its food with its sister restaurants. But the cocktails are the staple here. The drink menu is extensive, and it shifts seasonally, adopting a new theme. Their first menu was 1920s–themed, to invoke the roaring, prohibited peak in American alcohol culture. The current menu is 1950s–themed, a time period in our history that conversely, is famed for tacky drinks that are typically tough to swallow. R&D boldly chose this theme with the goal of taking these drinks’ vile reputations and turning them on their heads. Through masterful bartending, near obsession with customer experience, and distinct spins on classic recipes, they succeed.
The first drink of the night is the Old Fashioned, and it’s the smoothest of its kind that I’ve ever tried. It goes down easy with an expertly balanced ratio. The exact same is true of R&D’s White Russian—which, according to the bartender, takes 24 to 48 hours to make. This is because the milk mix part of it goes through an extensive fat–extraction process, resulting in a beverage that is clear—it’s an entirely unique version of the normally thick, milky drink.
The ice cubes within each of these drinks are huge and pristine. The one within the White Russian even has the bar’s name embossed across its top edge. R&D’s ice cubes aren’t like other ice cubes—they’re sliced out of gigantic three–foot–by–four–foot–by–three–inch slabs of ice given to them by the local company, Frank’s Ice, that churns these pieces out of a machine called a clinebell. Sometimes, they are even cut from remnants of Frank’s ice sculptures. They call this process the “cracked ice” method—while many restaurants would never use it due to how much time it takes, R&D is willing to put in the time to craft ice that makes smoother drinks. It’s classic for them to use one thick ice cube, never multiple. It melts slower, making the drinking experience last longer.
The final round of drinks brought to the table is something called the “3 Martini Lunch.” Arriving in three miniature martini glasses, the drink—or rather, experience—consists of an appetizer called The Vesper, an entreé called The Gibson, and a dessert called The Martinez—all in martini form.
The Vesper is citrusy, fruity, and light, made with gin, vodka, and some other type of magic. The Gibson is aromatic, emanating Earl–Gray–like scents, but saltier. It is the closest of the three to the classic dirty martini, but instead of olive brine, onion brine is used and the drink is garnished with a cocktail onion. The Martinez is tall, dark, and handsome. Crafted from R&D’s own sweet vermouth, a maraschino cherry, and some other sensual secrets, this drink tastes like the bar itself, if it were liquidized and poured into a classy little glass.
R&D is pretty much everything a college student looking to get off campus could ask for in a bar: it’s intimate, unceasingly vibey, and located right in the heart of Fishtown. Get there before their 1950s menu is through, and you’ll definitely find yourself heading back again for their next theme, Tiki.
“This place is dope,” calls a white–haired man from the end of the bar as the night comes to a close. He’s absolutely right.
TL;DR: R&D is way more sophisticated than any bar on campus.
Hours: Mon.—Sat.: 5:30 p.m.—1 a.m.
Location: 1206 Frankford Avenue