Ladybird Grove and Mess Hall now includes a cocktail lounge hidden above the restaurant on the Eastside Beltline trail. And it carries a similar national parks theme as Ladybird, but in a much more intimate space squirreled away on the second floor.
Called Ranger Station, owner Michael Lennox created a dark (emphasis on dark) and cozy spot for drinkers filled with vintage couches and conversation areas, wood paneling, and curiosities and decor befitting a rustic cabin in the woods or bar one might find at a hunting lodge. As with Golden Eagle, which Lennox closed in 2021 to expand Muchacho in Reynoldstown, music is key to setting the mood at Ranger Station and cocktails are center stage, inspired by a variety of national park landmarks and natural wonders. For now, reservations are necessary to gain entrance.
“I’m drawn to dark, comfortable, fun cocktail bars as places to spend time. Ranger Station is kind of that comfortable Midwestern bar that’s frozen in time,” Lennox says. “I want people to feel positive and linger with whomever they’re spending time with.”
Ranger Station is part of a recent expansion at Ladybird, one that took nine months and saw new hardwood floors installed, the opening of the Black Bear Bar downstairs, and more space added to the main dining room, which now features a fireplace. All of this while also discretely converting storage space on the second floor into a cocktail lounge.
Ranger Station will eventually include a separate outdoor entrance, with the interior entrance hidden behind a custom-built bookcase at the bottom of the staircase leading to the bar. Lennox says he imagines this as the spot where park rangers would relax after work, if Ladybird was indeed a wayside stop for weary hikers following a day on the trails.
Lennox recognizes many regulars to Golden Eagle will likely find the vibe at Ranger Station quite familiar. The DNA between the two bars is similar and shared in some ways. That feeling of familiarity is further punctuated by the cocktails created by Electric Hospitality beverage director Timothy Parker and Ranger Station bar manager Tom “Tibby” Kastanowski. Parker, who formally worked as the bar manager at Golden Eagle, is excited about the cocktails at Ranger Station, too, a place he says is primarily meant for conversing over good drinks.
“It’s a serious cocktail bar, but we didn’t want to take ourselves super seriously,” Parker says. “The whole point is to offer accessible cocktails using sophisticated techniques and great ingredients, but in a comfortable space where people can just relax and not feel rushed.”
Taking inspiration from classics like the gimlet, espresso martini, and piña colada, Parker and Kastanowski bring a culinary approach to building flavors for the cocktails at Ranger Station. Ingredients blend together in some drinks to create herbaceous and refreshing flavors to evoke the sights, sounds, and smells of wondering amongst the trees in an evergreen forest. Other cocktails carry bright, bracing flavors, as if walking along the base of a mountain in the afternoon sun on a winter afternoon.
Expect cocktails like an herbaceous play on the gimlet called the El Capitan, inspired by the vertical rock formation of the same name in Yosemite National Park. It’s made with sage and cardamon-infused gin mixed with clove Demerara syrup, pineapple puree, and lemon juice.
“I envision walking around the base of El Cap on a winter day before you enter into a big clearing and the sun hits your face and it’s bright,” says Parker. “This drink and the ingredients are sort of like a taste memory of that moment.”
The Kalalau cocktail, a nod to the Kalalau trail along Nā Pali Coast on Kauai, Hawaii, is a savory spin on the piña colada with five spices infusing cachaça, which is mixed with falernum and spearmint and aloe liqueur. Parker’s favorite drink on the current menu, however, is the Thunderbolt, based on the Peach Thunderbolt cocktail from the 1946 Charles H. Baker Jr. book “Around the World With a Jigger Beaker and Flask”. It’s basically a rum peach mint julep. Rather than serve his Thunderbolt with the nearly five ounces of rum called for in Baker’s recipe, Parker takes it down to just two ounces of rum.
“We use Chairman’s Reserve, a lovely Saint Lucian rum that imparts this leathery tobacco flavor that goes perfectly with the stone fruit profile of the drink,” Parker says. “We make a macerated peach syrup, where we take peaches, dice them, let them sit on sugar for a little over 24 hours and acid correct with citric and malic acids, salt, and fortify it with peach liqueur and apricot brandy.”
Lime juice helps balance out the flavors, before the drink is given a quick shake and topped with pebbled ice, mint leaves, and a sprinkle of powdered sugar. It’s served in a traditional julep cup.
Baker describes the Peach Thunderbolt as “nectar of the gods” and an “eyefilling, mild, pleasant debauch of three senses.” Parker agrees, and loves this over-the-top description Baker offers up for the drink. This approach to cocktail writing continues on the menu at Ranger Station. Each drink on the menu lists the ingredients, followed by a vivid description meant to conjure images of the wilderness or the specific landmark on which a cocktail is based.
Five more things to know about Ranger Station
1.) How do you get in?
You’ll need a reservation to gain entrance to Ranger Station, something Lennox says isn’t likely to change anytime soon. The space only seats 65 people between the 12-seat bar, couches, and cocktail tables. If space is available, walk-ins are accommodated on a first come, first serve basis. Check in at the host stand near the bottom of the interior stairs toward the back of Ladybird. A staff member will then direct people up to the bar.
2.) Why is it so dark?
Lennox says that’s by design. It should feel like a true cocktail bar, emphasized by the hidden aspect of Ranger Station. “You should feel like you’re walking into a cool basement bar or basement party from yesteryear that is well appointed and comfortable,” he says. “The lighting is something we take seriously. Some might think it’s too dark, but I would argue that after 10 or 15 minutes, people’s eyes will adjust, and it sets the mood. There’s lots of candles everywhere.”
3.) Is there food?
Yes. Look for everything from smoked fish dip and saltines with pimento cheese, smoked sausage, and mushroom jerky to chicken-fried quail and a cheeseburger.
4.) Does Ranger Station contain Easter eggs from Golden Eagle?
Yes, but Lennox isn’t saying what those are and is leaving it up to regulars of Golden Eagle to find those hidden design elements at Ranger Station.
5.) What’s the musical vibe?
As with Golden Eagle, music is a very important part of the identity of Ranger Station, which includes over 300 records in its vinyl collection. Music ranges from songs by Aretha Franklin, Johnny Cash, and Elvis Presley to Muddy Waters, Otis Redding, and the Rolling Stones. “I don’t think we have anything from later than 1980,” Lennox says.
Sunday, Tuesday - Thursday, 5 p.m. to 12 a.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. Reservations highly encouraged.