After visiting South Osborne’s Solera you’ll probably wish all your future cocktails were: a) this good; and b) served in an “accidentally on purpose ship-themed room” that is located behind a secret door.
The latest concept from MDS Restaurant Group (Sous Sol, Rudy’s Eat & Drink, Tabula Rasa) is hidden within Tabula Rasa. To find it, you’ll have to walk the corridor past the kitchen and enter via a wall of records.
Unlike some speakeasies, there’s no password to get in (you in fact check in with the Tabula Rasa host, and it’s walk-in only), but what awaits really seems like a whole new world — one filled with plush chairs and bar stools, a design that keeps your eye exploring and a large bar where you can get tasty share plates and pintxos from a dim sum-style checklist menu (yes, you get a little pencil!) and top-notch drinks that Dan Aykroyd approves of.
Solera’s walls are decorated with ships of all sorts, maps of Spain, Italy and the Mediterranean where the menu takes its cues, and translucent backlit Byzantine wallpaper used to make windows that give the illusion of something laying beyond the walls. There’s a wall of exposed brick with wine barrels jutting out, a nod to the name “Solera”, which is a process for producing sherry that uses a series of barrels for aging and blending. You’ll also find a number of sherries on the menu, which are also worked into several of the cocktails.
Above the bar Turkish light fixtures laid the foundation of this fun mish mash that is like a retro cabin that has been taken over by a chic cocktail bar.
The room was designed by MDS’s Michael Schafer (the owner) and Erik Thordarson (operations manager). As Thordarson says, “it’s nautical, but classy” while pointing out the service tray holder he made using a wooden ship wheel. Most of the design motifs were sourced from local vintage warehouse Shoestring Picker, whom MDS has been working with since they opened Sous Sol way back in 2015.
Schafer and Thordarson are also taking turns running the tiny kitchen, which is really just two induction burners and a corner to shuck oysters beside the bar. Thordarson refers to this prep station as his “own little Close Co,”* while each dish is under $10 with a couple exceptions.
“We're really leaning into a small tapas kind of thing. They are canapes-sized dishes, reminiscent of Northern Spain and San Sebastian pintxo,” said Thordarson. “And we’re keeping the prices very, very low, with things usually coming in threes and often just a buck a piece.”
The menu while we were filming included stuffed dates with chorizo, bacon, honey and pistachio crumble (3 for $3), spicy garlic prawns with parsley salad (3 for $9), stuffed piquillo peppers with veggie chili and mascarpone (3 for $5), and torched scallop crudo with trout roe and salsa rosa (2 pcs for $5). The only thing more than a few bucks are the oysters (Market Price) and the selection of conservas (fancy canned seafood) that comes direct from Spain. These change regularly, with options often consisting of mackerel, sardines, squid and what we devoured – razor clams – that they serve on boards with a selection of house made spreads and toasts for $20. This is a great option for interactive fare to pair with your drinks, plus the freshness of the fish and bivalves is stunning.
That said, the main focus of Solera is drinks. Along with all the cocktails, many of which feature spirits that have been aged (again, Solera!) there’s also a nice little wine list that Lucy Bateman-Hatton from The Wine House helped Thordarson curate that will change seasonally, along with local beers.
As to the bar…. As you can see in the above video with star bartender Chris Howell, whose accolades include being the Patron Perfectionist National Finalist in 2023 and the Diageo World Class Western Finalist in 2022, you can be prepared to be wowed.
No matter who is working the bar the night you are in, you are in good hands, with Howell advising you shouldn’t be intimidated in letting the bartender help guide your decision.
“Let us know if you have any dietary restrictions or allergies, and then from there just don’t be typecast in saying you want a certain spirit,” said Howell. “Tell us there’s a flavour you like, or a certain cocktail type—do you like booze forward? Something more tart? Something tropical? Sour?–just let us know and we’ll get you there,” said Howell.
“For instance, a cocktail on the current menu, Aloe Tokyo,” Howell continued. “I think a lot of people are surprised how much they are enjoying it because some people are averse to whisky and then haven't really tried many drinks using sherry. But, then they try this blend and it is tall and refreshing and these seemingly crazy flavours kind of just work tremendously well together.”
Solera has only been open for a few weeks but has already generated enough buzz to ensure that primetime hours (anytime after 7 p.m. really) will most likely mean you will have to wait for a table or seat at the bar.
Thankfully, staff will take your name and number down while the area, this being South Osborne is brimming with options while you wait. To support more locals right across the street you can grab drinks at Park Alleys, while Dastardly Villain Brewery will open soon next to it, with even more options just up the block.
Solera is hidden within 725 Osborne Street and is open for cocktails, tapas and oysters Thursday to Saturday, from 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. No reservations.
* Close Company was once the city’s smallest and most-acclaimed tiny spot (check out #83), holding just 12 people. It’s now the home of Petit Socco, which you’ll also love like we do.