These days, Pioneer Square is happy hour central. Once a neighborhood defined by the awkward juxtaposition of abject poverty and woo-girl nightlife—where weekday happy hours meant slightly cheaper shit beer at the Central Saloon—it's now a neighborhood defined by the awkward juxtaposition of abject poverty with woo-girl nightlife and chic offices. With that comes chic places for those business-casual bros and carefree creative directors to sip rosé and eat overpriced snacks after an exhausting day of sitting on inflated exercise balls and having team huddles.
However, as much as I like to make fun of Pioneer Square's new working class, I'm actually quite fond of the slightly highbrow bars it has drawn to the neighborhood. I can't pretend I've never overpaid for some Landjäger at E. Smith Mercantile, nor can I deny the allure of Good Bar's pickled eggs, with their bed of silky aioli and crispy, paper-thin prosciutto toppers.
Given the fairly saturated classy-happy-hour market, I was curious where relative newcomer the Sovereign would fit in. The semi-subterranean bar has a decently vintage feel to it—the original flooring remains, a crumbling but very clean, mostly white-tiled hexagonal affair, and the space itself is every bit as appealing as Good Bar, a visual feast of dark wood and detailed metalwork. There's a pair of those squat art-deco chairs and potted palms. It evokes what I imagine Miami was like in the 1960s: a glamorous, fun party with lots of cocktail umbrellas and flowy garments.
The beverage offerings are what you'd expect from a well-appointed cocktail lounge: a full page of specialty cocktails, a wide range of wines by the glass, and a few draft beers plus some eclectic cans and bottles. More practically, it has electrical outlets pretty much everywhere. While that may break the throwback spell, it's a godsend for anyone familiar with the concept of getting off work to get some work done.
But the food is where the Sovereign really distinguishes itself. The menu is a master class in after-work fare, the entire thing shareable right down to the "specials," entrée-sized plates that seem to be more mainstays than rotators. That said, almost any of the dishes, if eaten without the aid of colleagues, could fill up a solitary office drone. And they're all priced so affordably that the relatively meager happy hour food discount doesn't matter.
My first visit was a solo mission focused on the eggs, as nearly a quarter of the menu is devoted to the deviled variety. Naturally, I ordered all of them. The only alteration to the all-but-classic version was dill instead of paprika—it did all the things I expect a deviled egg to do, and admirably. However, the peppers and pancetta variant really swept me off my feet. The Sovereign has found the perfect pickled-pepper recipe, and they put it to good use on a variety of dishes. For this one, the peppers were piled atop the egg halves alongside pebbles of crispy pancetta—the perfect crunchy, tangy counterpoint to the deviled eggs' traditionally smooth texture and creamy flavor. The special egg, curried chicken with mango paste, did not wow me—the spice from the curry did little to combat the sweetness of the mango paste, and the tiny cube of white chicken meat was just kind of there.
For my next visit, I dragged two friends along to help me sample the spreads menu. We got the faux gras, artichoke dip, a half dozen of those amazing pancetta eggs, and the jerk chicken. Another thing the menu does well is cater to dietary restrictions without making a fuss about it, which is crucial to smooth happy hour operations. The faux gras is vegan—an earthy blend of walnuts, lentils, and mushrooms—but you'd never really notice if not for the little "V" next to it on the menu. Served with a healthy dollop of house peppers to lend it some welcome acid, it was a hit with everyone.
The decidedly non-vegan artichoke spread, however, was a veritable sensation. Where most artichoke dips are gloppy, heavy affairs—more about delivering Parmesan and mayo than the thing they're actually named for—this one is all about artichokes. The mornay is like The Dude's rug from The Big Lebowski (it really ties the dish together), and there's no mayo involved.
As for the jerk chicken with sweet potatoes, I want to do a shot of that jerk sauce for breakfast every day for the rest of my life. It's perfect—sweet but not overly so, with just the right viscosity, and packing a slow but powerful punch of heat. The perfectly cooked sweet potatoes are absolutely the only root vegetable that could work here, cutting the spice to a manageable level. While the chicken is also perfectly cooked, you almost don't need it. Indeed, bar manager Nathaniel "Thanny" Bradford, who also developed the menu, informed us that he originally developed the recipe for carrots. He's a vegetarian, which is ironic given how well he handles meat on his menu.
His plant-based diet shines through in certain dishes, like the delicious herbed gigante bean salad that came in place of the jerk chicken's regularly scheduled side salad. I don't know if it will ever be a permanent menu item, but given the beans' luscious smoothness and how perfectly bracing the dressing is, it really should be.
I returned once more, seriously fiending for that jerk sauce, and brought along a gluten-free friend. The menu was easily adaptable to his condition. The "baguettes" section—a series of bread-based melts—was obviously off-limits, as were the cheesy baked pastas. But all the spreads can be served with gluten-free crackers instead of baguette, all the deviled eggs are gluten-free, and being limited to the jerk chicken for an entrée isn't exactly a sacrifice. We went for tapenade, smoked oysters, a merguez baguette, and more jerk chicken.
The tapenade was the one total whiff, being salted to oblivion. The smoked oysters were, to my delight, just a tin of whole smoked oysters with house peppers and mustard. Bradford informed us that some people are aghast it's served this way, but as someone whose reward for grocery shopping is a tin of oysters, I was more than happy to pay $5 more for the privilege of peppers, mustard, and table service. The baguette dish—merguez, piperade, and leek confit melted under a blanket of Gouda—was basically the world's best pizza bread. It was even cut into triangles for sharing, although my poor, celiac-stricken companion couldn't indulge.
Perhaps the best thing about the food is that it's both novel and comforting at the same time. At its core, it's snacky stuff with enough élan to set it apart from your typical happy hour shareables. The fact that it succeeds in making snacky stuff interesting is what I find most impressive. The same could be said of the place in general.
Among Pioneer Square's many quality spots for happy hour, the Sovereign manages to provide the type of space where one can feel equally comfortable sipping a Rainier in ripped jeans and a faded army jacket or planning your next agile scrum sprint over slices of house-pepper baguette. Given the demographic trends of the neighborhood, that's an eminently necessary line to walk.