A local upscale, underground cocktail bar that opened just before the shutdown in March 2020 has managed to land on a prestigious national list after its entire first year happened during a pandemic.
Tender Mercy, located at 607 E. 3rd St. in Dayton, is “no longer a Dayton-kept secret” now that it’s been listed among 27 of the most “Exemplary places to grab a well-deserved drink” in America by Esquire Magazine.
Esquire’s “Best Bars in America 2021″ article was published on Tuesday, May 25. Upon receiving the news of the honor, Tender Mercy said it’s “just getting started.”
“We set out to create something special for this town, something it deserves, something it can be proud of,” said David Kittredge of The Idea Collective, the ownership group behind Tender Mercy. “This honor is certainly a recognition of that effort and one we will build on as a team and as a community.”
“Tender Mercy opened three days before the shutdown—bad luck, that was—so for a year this ambitious oasis in the nowhereland of southwestern Ohio stayed a secret, except to the Daytonians who drank their last great cocktail there before lockdown began,” reported Esquire.
“What this means for Tender Mercy is huge, but what this means for the city is huge,” said Sabrina Cox, Tender Mercy’s general manager. “People often come down in the bar and the first thing they say is ‘I don’t feel like I’m in Dayton anymore.’ and I always say, ‘Nope, you’re in Dayton.’ … I want people to go to other cities and go into cool spots and be like, ‘Oh, I feel like I’m in Dayton.’”
Esquire’s recognition did not put Dayton on the map by any means, according to Cox.
“We’re the birthplace of flight, we have some of the best poets that have ever come out of the United States are from here,” Cox said. “I think that this just like reminded people that we’re here, and that’s really important to me. I don’t want anyone to forget how amazing ‘Nowhere Land’ — thank you Esquire — is.’
Tender Mercy’s home is in the basement of the recently rescued Avant Garde building downtown. Its lounge features two sprawling bars helmed by the bar’s beverage director, Branden Fugate, a “Dayton native who cut his teeth in Los Angeles under the mentorship of esteemed barman Beau du Bois,” according to a release from Tender Mercy.
“Enter through the subway stairway the bar convinced the city to let it burrow into the concrete,” Esquire wrote. “Then walk deeper into the underground cavern, where you’ll encounter a library, a vault turned drinking nook, a sprawling bar serving draft drinks, a wall of (tastefully) naked ladies, followed by a backroom cocktail den with a fireplace and a photo of Richard Gere smoldering against the booze bottles.”
Tender Mercy can now celebrate an unlikely yet successful first year in what the release added “might be the longest soft launch ever.” Cox said a celebration with the community is definitely in the works.
“There are some incredibly talented and passionate people in Dayton that live for the craft of hospitality, and we are collectively building something bigger than any one establishment that is worth traveling for,” Kittredge said.
Also appearing in Esquire’s lineup, Cincinnati’s Walnut Hill’s neighborhood got its own shoutout thanks to Comfort Station, a “hidden and intimate bar.”
“Even if you happen to be up in Cincinnati’s Walnut Hills neighborhood, the likelihood of you taking a chance on a women’s restroom door on the front of what used to be a public bathhouse is slim,” Esquire wrote. “But should you tentatively push through, you’ll find what feels like the city’s spiritual center.”