Situated next to Café Pasqual's, new Santa Fe restaurant/bar Tonic (103 E Water St., 982-1189) aims to occupy the liminal space between aspirations to classicalism and a new paradigm in Santa Fe that is the small, tightly curated restaurant of limited focus. Maybe it's hard to bank on covering the costs of starting a restaurant here (the rent, the insurance, the gas bill, the liquor license) on a concept that would only appeal to a minor demographic of an insular mountain town; maybe there's something about living in a landscape so large that makes it hard to think small.
Open till 2 am and serving food till close—plus featuring a selection off the beaten-to-death path of cheap, late-night alcohol in Santa Fe, Tonic's decor is a homage to New Orleans art deco-inspired jazz bars, reinforced by clear chandeliers and leather booths. The space acts as a potential
music venue, with acoustically treated walls and a filled stage to reduce echo and encourage clarity. I found myself wishing the chandeliers were closer and the light more diffuse, and for a little more grittiness and stain—maybe dim candlelight and huge tropical plants to bring the humid heaviness of a summer night on the bayou.
Only a month into Tonic's run in the old Atomic Grill space, and I've been impressed with its direction—but I'm worried about it. I worry it will be too hard to proselytize the virtues of Elijah Craig when everyone just wants Jack Daniels. Tonic's beverage program is almost unabashedly eclectic. You won't find Jim Beam or Jameson or PBR or Bud Light, but there's no less than five different kinds of Japanese whiskey. Can you have a successful bar in Santa Fe without appealing to people who exclusively drink mainstream brands? And when someone comes in who wants something familiar, do you have the staff in place to teach them otherwise? I'm a certified sommelier practicing my craft in Santa Fe, and I long ago stopped trying to wrest Belle Glos or Rombauer chardonnay away from my guest's preferences—but then, maybe I'm giving up too easily.
It's depressing to think that appealing to the more conventional common denominator might be the only way to succeed in this town. "We want to make people comfortable to try new things," says owner and general manager Winston Greene. In that vein, I had the "Bliss Behind Your Eyes" cocktail for $10, a sotol-based cocktail served in a Georgian glass, with cinnamon syrup and grapefruit bitters. The sotol was infused with damiana, dandelion root and wormwood, an herbal blend designed to lift the mood and increase blood flow. It tasted like a warming and delicately flavored confection.
But if New Orleans jazz nostalgia is the inspiration, the cocktail list needs to be tightly focused on the classics. Even though I appreciated the garden-to-glass sensibilities of my drink, it doesn't totally fit. As for Tonic's wine list, there are interesting examples of wine styles I like—the Laporte Cabernet-Franc ($11), the Antech "Cuvee Emotion" from Limoux ($13)—but think of the potential if it had a commitment to pouring wines that equaled the curated level of the available spirits in terms of style and ethos. Why not be the first restaurant in Santa Fe to use a Coravin (a tool for pouring wine that replaces wine drawn out of the bottle through a needle with inert gas so the wine stays fresh) for the sake of better by-the-glass pours? The beer list is mostly local with some domestics, but if you're not going to throw some PBR to the people, why not pour an actual classic German lager instead?
Perhaps Tonic's niche appeal could be rooted in well-priced and satisfying late-night food offerings. I sampled the vegan poutine ($10) made with miso and tofu, and it was an expected but not unwelcome example of the kind of salty, umami-rich bar food that can sustain you at 1 in the morning. I also had the black garlic chicken nuggets ($8), which were my favorite item so far on the menu—garlicky and crunchy on the outside without being too dry on the inside. They're perfect with the Larceny bourbon if you're in the mood.
The whiskey list, despite—or maybe because of—its omissions, is thought-provoking. I almost wish the bar was exclusively focused on whiskey, since it fits with the theme more than the diverse directions of the other aspects of Tonic's beverages.
We live in such a strange headspace when it comes to the restaurant scene in Santa Fe, at once empowered by our history and handicapped by it. We don't want chains and coroporations colorlesssly clouding our landscape, but we're seldom equipped to sustainably offer anything other than middle-of-the-road tourist traps and dive bars. But I do appreciate Tonic's wild and almost self-indulgent stand against a reality as weighty and inevitable as gravity. I hope it figures out how to fly.