The name Rathskeller is a German word meaning underground or basement tavern, and the vibe is spot on. Photos by Angie Bryan

If you’re looking for a calmer vibe than the rest of Wharf Street, or one that caters to a not-quite-so-young demographic, I’ve found the perfect place. Rathskeller on Wharf, which opened in November, is a bit of a hidden gem, owned by the people behind Legends Rest Taproom in Westbrook, siblings Tom and Meg Minervino, and their business partner, Michael Barton.

The entry is down a flight of stairs, after which the space opens up into a very large bar that wraps around the center of the room. A wooden banquette spans the length of one wall, and there are big booths for groups. The backless cushioned barstools with footrests are extremely comfortable, the area under the bar has lighting so that you can see the purse hooks, and fairy lights and brick walls complete the cozy underground pub vibe.

Rathskeller is a German word for an underground/basement tavern or restaurant, usually one with a heavy focus on beer, but because the “h” is silent, people often erroneously think it has something to do with rats – not a good image for a bar or restaurant. The owners decided to have fun with that, hanging a large whimsical rat-filled painting by one of their relatives as the primary art piece in the bar.

Rathskeller makes its own fresh-fruit purees and shrubs for its cocktails.

The art isn’t the only thing they’re having fun with – their cocktail program is on point. Both of the cocktails we ordered, The Winter Wobble and the High Standard, were excellent – but unfortunately are no longer on the menu, as the cocktail menu changed shortly after our visit.  What hasn’t changed, though, is the emphasis on making in-house fruit purees out of fresh fruit, as well as their own shrubs – the cranberry shrub was extraordinary.

The new cocktail menu features nine cocktails ranging from $7 to $14, and it’s hard to narrow down which one I’d be tempted to order on my next visit. The Wharf Rat combines mezcal, house-smoked pineapple, lemon, lime and a rim of Tajin, a Mexican spice made from peppers, lime and salt. The Empress of Wharf St. uses Empress gin, lemon, simple syrup and a foam with a lavender rinse, and its stunning purple color is displayed to perfection in a coupe with a floral garnish. The espresso martini has a rim made of crumbled Oreos. Do you see what I mean?

Rathskeller on Wharf also has nine bottled beers ($3-$5) and 10 canned ones ($4-$8), as well as 10 wines by the glass, ranging from $7 (for the house red and the house white) to $12 (for a Cabernet Sauvignon from California). The bartender was friendly and knowledgeable, and the music was at a decent volume. The lighting was pretty dim, but what do you expect in a basement?

Down a flight of stairs, Rathskeller caters to a slightly older, more mellow crowd than most Wharf Street bars.

My drinking companion and I were there during happy hour, which is 4-6 p.m. on weekdays.  During happy hour, a glass of house wine is $5 instead of $7, premium well drinks are $7, and certain bar snacks are $5. The day we were there, the featured snacks were wings, haddock sliders, Brussels sprouts, a Wimpy burger, and a crock of mac and cheese.  We ordered the wings, the sliders, and the mac and cheese, then decided to order the Brussels sprouts for show.  We enjoyed everything (especially the price), but the wings, which I ordered dirt style, were my favorite.

The regular food menu is pretty standard pub fare – sandwiches, burgers, fish and chips, etc. – but their Facebook feed’s constant mouthwatering photographs of new food specials will definitely entice me back.

Retired diplomat Angie Bryan writes about Maine’s cocktail bars while making as many puns as her editor allows.

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