Look beyond Union Park’s facade, and you’ll find a neighborhood bar. photography by Sean McGinty

Union Park Offers Hope For Downtown

It may look like a club, but the homemade gumbo says otherwise.

Upscale without being Uptown. that’s how Union Park managing partner Chris Raymer describes his new downtown “gastro bar.” He’s pretty much on the money.

The upscale part is obvious from the street, so shiny spiff is the exterior. Inside, the bar has a polished wood ceiling, comfy booths, a bar made of urbane concrete. It’s dark in a way that I’d expect from a club, an old-school men’s club with scotch and cigars. But the scotch-and-cigars darkness is paired with a visual glibness. There are strips of artificial turf running along the banquettes.

A large section of the back room is essentially a living room, with a TV that may well be better than yours. The big black couches can host two parties of 10 or so. They create one of the more homey spaces I’ve seen for hanging out, a stark distinction from the concrete bar. A pool table is tucked back here, too, and smokers can head back up to the front and out the doors to the patio area facing Main Street—and the more rumpled, full of character City Tavern across the street. In fact, in many ways, Union Park feels like the inverse of City Tavern, slick and cool and sporty versus low-key and cool and funky.

Union Park is owned by Nhat Ngo and Jose Quiroga—known as a DJ and for his clubs (Mantis, Vice, and Cameo). And there’s a DJ booth alongside the many sit-and-eat booths. Given that, it would be easy to
expect club crowds every night. But two trips—one on a Sunday for a Cowboys game and one on a Wednesday night—proved otherwise.

The Sunday night game was against Atlanta, and there were a surprising number of Falcons fans sitting on the couches. The waitresses wore Cowboys jerseys and hot pants, and overall the mood was reasonably subdued, like the Sunday after a big Saturday night. An in-shape man with impeccably waxed eyebrows nursed a beer not far from us, hugging a waitress or two as they walked by. Some young indies sat a few tables down from us, and I saw at least one hipster nerdy guy there on both the Sunday and the Wednesday. A baby-faced twentysomething guy who looked like he knew how to code in multiple languages was on a (7th? 12th?) date and drinking a Corona-rita. Another guy had hoops in his stretched ears—the lobes pulled and stretched around jewelry, a kind of body art I would have expected to see more at City Tavern than Union Park. And this is where it seemed like Raymer’s comment was really on the mark: the place is upscale (the burgers are infused with bacon rather than merely covered in it), but as befits downtown, the young crowd was mixed.

Partly that may be because of the food. Raymer mentioned that they’ve sold far more food than they expected. The menu is burger-heavy. The 12-ounce Angus burgers are enormous (Wednesdays, they’re only $4). Homemade gumbo is available on Sundays, and lobster corn dogs are there every day. So people who live downtown and want a little upscale comfort food can wander in. At the same time, they can watch a game and have a drink. A number of the draft beers are local, and if you like pomegranate or pink watermelon/cucumber in your drink, your needs will be met. We skipped the fancy cocktails and Champagne in favor of beer (Rahr and Real Ale) and, later, a sturdy Bulleit bourbon and Coke. I’m sure a French 75 (Moet & Chandon Imperial Champagne and Tanqueray) would be in order on a Friday night with the girls, but a beer was better suited to the game and Sunday night gumbo.

I’ve never been much of a club girl, but the physical space at Union Park reminded me of those few clubs I’ve been to. The patio, the front bar area that feels traditionally barlike, the cozy booths in the middle space, the DJ booth, the living room area—all of it sleek and upscale. None of which was as interesting as the twentysomething enjoying Sunday dinner with his girl and the unbidden hope this gives me for downtown.

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