Don't feel bad if you don't find Union Bear on the first try; Maître D Josh Miller tells me the restaurant is enjoying a little bit of mystery, tucked in the thick and among the din of West Village. But, despite its enigmatic storefront—which looks a bit like a cross between a bar and a food truck, leading into what can best be described as "the cleanest, brightest subway station you've ever seen"—don't think for a moment that the Bear has had any down time.
Its sidewalk is consistently fluid with a wave of human excitement near its first floor bar, and patrons who desire a little "down time" out of the elements can descend into the Bear's basement level, which has been opened up, allowing brilliant patio light to reach the deepest levels through the first floor skylights. Downstairs, in what was formerly the night club, Nikita, the "subway station" look gives way to an airy and sophisticated level designed to look a bit like an indoor patio—heavy on welcome sunlight, light on scorching summer heat.
The newest installment from the Spillers Group—the masterminds behind Oak Cliff institutions Eno's Pizza Tavern and Oddfellows—Union Bear brings a bit of West Dallas culture right into the heart of Uptown. Focusing on "everything craft" from the home-brewed beer to the creative food and even the rotating art on the walls, Union Bear is intent on bringing you a cutting-edge, customized dining experience. A retired Jonas Brothers wrangler and current "Bear handler," Josh Miller gives us the skinny on taking his skills off the road to manage the non-stop, multilevel event that is Union Bear.
The Spillers Group's restaurants have historically been in Oak Cliff; how's the new location working out?
West Village approached [the Spillers Group] about this space being available—they get approached a lot by different areas that want their concepts to come in—and they felt like this was the right opportunity and right timing to bring what they do culturally to this area. And so the space, the layout, being underground, having the vision to open it up just seemed like we can do something unique to West Village that is authentic to what we do in Oak Cliff, and present that to this area. That's something that really attracted me to coming onboard with the group.
So, who is your targeted client for this location? Are they dissimilar from your clients in Oak Cliff?
By location you're going to have a different backbone of neighborhood clientele, but the idea is, we want to offer something unique to this neighborhood, and it's for everybody. It's for the cult following out in Oak Cliff, but as well for the people in this area who haven't experienced these concepts—craft beer and craft food at this level—to give the exposure to them and hopefully create new ideas for people and how they experience food and drink.
Does this concept differ from Oddfellows and Eno's?
I think it represents the core values—for example, craft drinks and craft food from Eno's coming here, larger scale, and then the cultural aesthetic that you find at Oddfellows, we tried to bring here. This room we're in right now is called "the lodge" which is kind of named after Oddfellows. So you'll find a lot of similarities. The pizza we have here has its own identity. It's similar in that it's thin crust like Eno's ? but, we have a different team in place and the ingredients are different. Same with the location, the space, the other menu items, the drinks, all those things encapsulate the identity; you can feel the difference when you walk through the door.
Home brews and local breweries are a huge thing right now. How do you decide which beers to feature?
We have a great team: Jeff Fryman, Jonathan Colley, Brian Grobleski. They're all very seasoned. All very knowledgeable, beyond my understanding. I'm a fan, and I've studied a little bit, but they know so much. Jonathan Colley really heads up our beer program, and the idea is forty beers on tap, all craft beers, and we rotate out. There's a few that will probably always be on tap, but we are always trying out new things. New breweries. New beers. Seasonal things. And, we've had events around new things coming out. That becomes fun.
What's the most interesting thing on tap right now?
I would say the Peticolas. The Imperial Red called Velvet Hammer. It is from the second Dallas brewery to ever exist, and we just tapped it yesterday. I've been excited about tasting it and getting it in because it's local. Out of my opinion, that's the most unique.
Did I read wrong that there are some beers made here?
No, you didn't read that wrong. We are by nature a brew house. We have a beer program in-house that we're still developing. We have our system built and we have our team preparing to begin brewing as early as May.
So, they'll be under the Union Bear brand? Is there a meaning behind the name?
Um? [long pause]
I take it you're not at liberty to say?
[laughs] Yeah, I don't know that I am?
Fair enough. How long are the waits? If it's 7:30 on a Saturday night, what can we expect?
It's usually at least an hour and a half, sometimes two, but we do take reservations for parties larger than six. Anything smaller than that, we do walkups.
Since the beer list is so extensive and totally inexpensive, have you had any issues with patrons being a little rowdy from time to time?
Not really. The atmosphere attracts people to come in and experience more than to party. Anywhere you have good food and good drink, you'll have people who want to have a "good time" and while you'll find on occasion people who get a little loud, there's been nothing crazy.
Any upcoming events?
The last one we did revolved more around coffee. Cuvee Coffee and La Marzocco—the espresso machine maker, we have some of their machines at Oddfellows—we brought them in and we had six of their machines and a lot of the coffee community came out. It was a great event, this whole area was packed, and they were doing demonstrations, it was really cool. That was last week.
You formerly worked in LA managing bands. Do you think that prepared you for this? Any similarities?
Absolutely! I worked primarily in the music side of entertainment for the better part of seven years, and a lot of that time was spent on the road tour managing for different bands. When you’re doing a concert, you're managing an event, and every single day in a restaurant—whether lunch or dinner—you're managing an event. You're providing a culture. And, you have to make sure it runs properly every single time. I think my experiences really set the stage for me to come in and run the house here. That muscle memory of event planning goes into play every single day.
Have you had any challenges with the multi-levels?
Not at all. I think it's cool because it offers two different experiences. And, even down here, you have different experiences in the different rooms.
But, it is a different layout than the other restaurants. Were there any logistical maneuvers and bugs to work out?
It's different because, Eno's is two-stories, but when you walk in, you're downstairs. Here, you walk in upstairs, but the majority of our dining is downstairs in the basement. So, if you've never been here before, and you just walk in the front door or just see it from the street, you think it's just a ? bar. Then you walk in and see this huge, beautiful basement down here and people's reaction is usually—they're usually taken aback. A lot of cities like New York, you'll find a lot more basement restaurants, and it's more culturally acceptable. Here, people don't really know what to expect or what to think. They feel the comfort of feeling like you're still outside, on street level.
It's incredible. It's like being on a patio, except it's not hot and we're not dealing with people and cars zooming by.
And, when you go back to the dining room, you can see the kitchen and feel the action and the energy, it's cool.
And, there's the great art work.
All the wall art will rotate, and we'll bring in local artists to do it because we want the restaurant to be as "Dallas" as possible and we want the community to really have a hand in it and be a part of it. The mural we have right now is by Kyle Steed and everyone loves it. It's unique to Dallas. And, that's really our main goal in every aspect of Union Bear.