From library to libations: Bar 1903 a downtown hit

by Tallahassee Table

Restaurateur Jesse Edmunds wasn’t in the market for another new business.  But then his wife, Briana, persuaded him to check out a vacant building downtown. He reluctantly agreed because, well, it wasn’t just any building. Tallahassee’s first library, spared from demolition, was waiting to be given a new life.

“I looked up and saw the ceiling and said, ‘Damn it!’ “ said Edmunds — owner of Liberty Bar and Restaurant, El Cocinero and The Hawthorn Bistro & Bakery. “It hit me like a ton of bricks.”

He knew then that he wanted to take on this new project: transforming the historic David S. Walker Library, built in 1903, and saved from the construction of the Ballard Building right next door.

On Friday, Feb. 7, after months of work by Edmunds and his team, Seven Hills Hospitality Group, the former library was reborn as Bar 1903. A space that once nurtured the minds of its patrons will now tempt their palates with fun small plates and dozens of classic cocktails in a lovely setting. 

About 50 customers were lined up at the door when the place opened at 4:30 p.m. Friday. But the place only has room for 36. My husband and I and our friends tried to get in on Saturday night but it was filled to capacity and we didn’t want to wait. 

I came back on Tuesday to meet with Edmunds to get a better look and hear more about his vision for Bar 1903. While there are modern accents, the former library has an intimate feel. There’s really only one main room, which is elegant and understated, with a few nooks for more  privacy. It’s decorated in soft, neutral colors with lots of woodwork and black furniture. A portrait of David S. Walker hangs over the fireplace. 

A narrow staircase by the bar leads to a second floor, a skinny walkway flanked by wood that encircles the main room like a VIP balcony at an opera. Sadly it’s not workable for serving the public. “Look how narrow it is,” said Edmunds. And there’s only one staircase to get up and down in case of fire. It sure adds charm to the room, though.

The challenge here, at least during prime time — is getting a seat. Bar 1903 operates like this: If the room is filled to capacity, the host will keep your place and take your cell number to contact you when seating opens up (there’s no way to know whether that will be a short time or hours later though waits tend to be 30 to 40 minutes). Once you’re contacted, you have 15 minutes to come back and claim your seat. 

There’s no place for standing or waiting unless you want to take a stroll. The Chain of Parks is across the street. About 400 to 500 patrons stopped by Bar 1903 over the weekend and “we seated 190 of them,” said Edmunds.  “Most had to go somewhere else” — at least until space opened, if they indeed wanted to come back.

Bar 1903 is the latest downtown venture, joining the upscale restaurants Il Lusso and Saveur, the retro lounge/restaurant Rootstock and Eve on Adams, the new rooftop cocktail lounge perched above the 16-floor DoubleTree by Hilton.

These places didn’t exist two years ago, but there’s room for all of them, said Edmunds. 

Some customers who couldn’t get into Bar 1903 went to Jesse’s other venues, Liberty and El Cocinero, and a good many had dinner and/or drinks at the other downtown destinations.

“All of us won,” said Edmunds.

Bar 1903 isn’t competing with full-service fine dining menus. Edmunds features small plates — charcuterie boards, bites like deviled eggs and crab toast, sandwiches and desserts. The star here is the drink menu, which offers House Cocktails, like the Demon Seal (with Bacoo 12-year rum, chai spiced maple syrup and smoked cinnamon), the Juniper Tree (with Fords Gin, Yellow Chartreuse and strawberry dust) and Heavy Metal Queen (St. Augustine vodka, rose and vanilla syrup). 

There’s a separate page for Gin & Tonics that’s “super cool,” said Edmunds.”I was never a gin drinker before I experienced this. It’s a complex and beautiful spirit.”

Following the House Cocktails, the drinks menu is divided into time periods, starting with pre-1880, including drinks that have now become standard: a Manhattan, an Old-Fashioned, Sazerac. 

“There wasn’t any Internet then, but you can see what trends were like on the East Coast and the West Coast and what spirits were popular,” Edmunds said. “There was a lot of commonality.”

Other timelines are 1880-1919, 1919-1933, 1933-1950, 1950-1980, 1980-2000, 200-Now and beer and wine.  Except for Miller High Life and Michelob Ultra, Bar 1903 carries beer from Florida breweries: Proof and Deep (Tallahassee), Oyster City Brewing (Apalachicola), Cigar City (Tampa) and 3 Daughters Brewing (St. Petersburg).

Aside from developing the bar and menu, Edmunds and his team were also involved in doing much of the work. 

 “I can look around and be proud,” he said. 

Edmunds built the bar with red oak and chinkapin wood he obtained from Quincy. He hand-milled the wood, creating 650 slabs that he fashioned into a herringbone pattern used for the top of the bar. It’s polished to a natural sheen using Odie’s Oil, developed by James Tinghitella in Sopchoppy. He also built the back of the bar and the bathrooms. 

Photo: Bar 1903, as work was being done to transform the library.

As for that gorgeous high ceiling, it needed to have mold mitigation work. “We hired a specialty window washer who hand-mopped it using a 40-foot extension pole from the middle of the room,” said Edmunds. That ceiling, and its skylight, are stunning.

“A building like this is rare and hard to find,” said Edmunds. “The stars were aligned.”

Bar 1903 is 209 E. Park Ave.; 850-354-9739. It’s open from 4:30 p.m. to midnight Monday to Thursday and 4:30 to 2 a.m. Friday to Saturday.

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