Remember when bars were bastions of male dominance? Yea, neither do I.
But the fact is, fern bars were created in the happenin' sexual revolutionary days of the '70s as a means to attract young, single women to drink in public, something many had been reluctant to do (or explicitly forbidden to do by their mothers) in seedy, smokey dives full of men.
As in, we weren't going to drink at Rocky's, but we might at the Regal Beagle (look it up, kids).
The ones I remember from the '80s were indeed full of ferns, along with Tiffany lamps, plenty of brass railings and as many women as men, so it never occurred to me that bars hadn't always been crowded by both sexes.
Fast forward to the 21st century and, wouldn't you just know, we've got ourselves a spankin' new fern bar that combines the best of what originally set those bars apart with a more contemporary sensibility. Here, the fern bar's requisite Harvey Wallbanger has become The Girl from Ipanema, making for an inside joke.
Welcome to Laura Lee's.
When it was the White Horse Tavern, the place was ferociously noisy and had the look of a southside rec room - dark, low-ceilinged, awkwardly chopped up - as decorated by a man, while the new iteration screams estrogen with yellow walls and ceilings, a blue-stenciled floor, plants and flowers throughout and sound-absorbing art panels.
Along the dividing wall separating the bar area from the dining room sat a linear lounge boasting studded club chairs and small tables, all but inviting people to relax with a drink. I didn't take my drink, but I did spend some quality time testing out the chairs for comfort (they passed with flying colors).
The absolutely stellar soundtrack was a mix of vintage soul music created late at night by a time-starved (female) restaurant owner who agrees with me that just the right music is essential to any memorable experience. Any.
Honestly, we're so much wiser and more clear-headed that I'll never understand why my sex hasn't been been running the world since the beginning of time.
I ran into no less than nine people from the neighborhood, all of them thrilled to have a legit place to sip and sup within stumbling distance of home. Given how spoiled I am in my 'hood (although nary a fern bar), I could appreciate their elation.
Keeping to the theme, the menu offered some interesting plates with a leaning toward lighter (dare I say slightly healthier?) fare and, mercifully not another neo-southern wannabe or multiple cuisine mashup.
My first choice was beef-braised local carrots with horseradish and rosemary, the carrots satisfyingly toothsome and surrounded by bits of beef. Next came toasted quinoa studded with edamame and thinly sliced radishes over sesame oil, a deliciously nutty-tasting dish that was instantly filling and savory.
Not content to stop because I was full, I moved on to pressed, marinated fennel with roasted figs, buttermilk blue cheese and prosciutto, notable for the unique note the fennel added to the classic trio of flavors.
Meanwhile, the happy guy just down the bar from me admitted to downing two large plates, first blue crab and corncakes and then sausage, corn and okra, making me feel a whole lot better about my three small plates.
Because it's a neighborhood spot, some people felt comfortable bringing their kids with them, but the beauty of Laura Lee's configuration was that once they were on the dining room side, the perfectly-calibrated music on the bar side completely obliterated any crying, squawking or otherwise potentially annoying sounds from young guests.
And everybody was there, it seemed, from half the Roosevelt crew to Amuse staffers to the scooter queen and entourage ("Have you gotten your ticket?" she queried me about an upcoming secret show) to the baker to the woodworker.
For all I know, the candlestick maker was there, too, and I just didn't lay eyes on him.
I didn't ask for the dessert menu but when presented with it, I caved and ordered a warm dark chocolate flourless cake with white mint mousse, essentially an upscale take on a classic ice cream roll. I stopped just short of licking the plate.
Perhaps most striking of everything about this latter day fern bar with the epic soundtrack was just how lived in it already felt. Laura Lee's doesn't even open to the public until Tuesday, but everything about the feel of the place was comfortable, inviting and yet stylish.
Just the way a single woman likes to be described when she's drinking in public.