The location of Sonny’s bar and lounge has been home to F. Parker Reidy’s (a former Portland institution that attracted lawyers and cooked up some of the best top sirloins) and Portland Savings Bank. Anyone who frequents Sonny’s today knows the old money vaults are used as wine cellars (or where patrons are thrown if they don’t pay their tabs).
But aside from its local history, 83 Exchange St. is now known for good cocktails. Ask a 20- or 30-something professional where to find the best house-made infusions and mixed drinks, and Sonny’s likely will be at the top of the list.
The impressive list of house infusions includes chili tequila, cucumber gin and peach bourbon that live in large glass jugs on display behind the bar — and visible from the restaurant’s patio bordering Post Office Park.
The infusions are used abundantly throughout the cocktail list for drinks such as the Chili Pineapple Margarita ($8) or the Eat a Peach” whiskey cocktail ($10), which is made with the peach bourbon, peach nectar, fresh lemon, bubbly and a dash of peach bitters.
Colorful, fruit-garnished cocktails punctuate the bar scene every afternoon, especially around happy hour.
However, according to the bartender, happy hour specials weren’t popular at Sonny’s, likely because the normal cocktail menu beguiled patrons so much that a discounted beer didn’t hold a candle to something like the #1 Bulleit (Bulleit bourbon, raw egg white, fresh lemon, lime, simple syrup and fresh strawberry, $11).
Instead, the bar offers a $5 glass of wine most nights (wines by the glass are usually $6 to $9). The house-made sangria is also $5, but for boozy wine, Sonny’s version isn’t so much boozy as it is watery. While the sangria was made with seasonal fruit, the stemless wine glass was filled halfway with seltzer.
Regardless, the bartender was skillfully slinging cocktails right and left, some to business people in suits, others to cheerful vacationers with maps and restaurant guides at the ready on their smartphones.
Around 8 p.m., the bar lights are dimmed, appetizers like the fried avocado or empanada or yam fries bounce from kitchen to table and a younger, hipper crowd rolls through and stays for the long haul.
And if you’re not into the house infusion thing, there are 11 beers on tap (and on regular rotation), bottled and canned options (as low as $3, as much as $10), and gluten- and alcohol-free options.
Sonny’s owner-chef Jay Villani (of Local 188 on Congress Street) got the luck of the draw with this Old Port location back in 2009. Or maybe it’s been less about location and more about tradition.
After all, F. Parker Reidy’s was, for many, the lifeblood of Exchange Street for decades. By the looks of it, we’ll be saying the same thing about Sonny’s decades from now.
Claire Jeffers is a freelance writer.