#Huangry: Vault & Vator
I'll be honest. I wasn't blown away by Vault & Vator when I walked in to do my shoot last week. I don't mean that as a diss — I was there before service started, and I've been familiar with Kirk Ingram's brand of mixology for a while. So in a sense, it would have required an amazing experience for V&V to top my expectations. And because the team behind V&V is the same team behind American Grocery, my expectations were already pretty high.
But the funny thing about expectations is that they have a way of distracting you from the actual value and strengths of a place.
The more time I spend in restaurants and bars, and the more generic concepts get (upscale, luxury, craft cocktails, artisanal, local, organic — stop me if you've heard these phrases before), the more important I find it to evaluate a place more holistically. It's not necessarily fair to evaluate a place based solely on your own expectations. It's just as important to examine what expectations a place sets for itself, and then see how well that place executes on that vision.
If I were to attempt any sort of objectivity, the truth is probably something like this: the cocktails are very good. I only had a single drink, but if you've had drinks at AGR before, you know to expect and receive nothing less than excellence and consistency. The space, on the other hand, is really nothing but a dark basement room until service begins.
Yes, there are really nice touches: the bar and low tables were built and wrapped in zinc by Chef Joe Clark's own hands; the booth tables have a faux alligator wrap that provide interesting texture and patterning; and the Edison bulbs throughout put out a really nice warmth (but not much in the way of light). The highlights are exactly what they're supposed to be: nice. But the entire space isn't finished with the same degree of polish.
Maybe that's the point. Vault & Vator is a modern speakeasy, and perhaps one should expect rough edges, given the underground nature and the questionable historical legality of speakeasies. Regardless, I think it's better not to obsess about the actual finishes. To do that is to miss the forest for the trees. Instead, it's helpful to think of V&V as a theatre.
Consider most performance spaces. They're kind of pointless and barren and empty until they are brought to life by a production and filled with a crowd.
That's Vault & Vator.
The main stage is the U-shaped bar, as it should be, given the focus on beverages. It's even spotlit. Track lighting shines down on the bartenders; the underside behind the bar is lit with cool LED lighting that contrasts with the warmth and darkness everywhere else; and even the liquor display has a subtle illumination. The brightest spot in V&V — quite literally — is the bar.
A secondary bright spot? The prep area for the food, tucked in the back off to the side of the bar. The offerings here are much less expansive than the list of libations, but again, if you want a full meal with a good cocktail, AGR is where you should go. V&V, instead, serves up small bites that help take the edge off the spirits and help you linger and converse, should that be your purpose.
The brighter lights (both in the food prep area and the bar) have a functional reason for existing — I really want the people putting together my food and drinks to see what they're doing — but they're also a convenient metaphor for what V&V aims to do well.
The rest of the space... Well, it just kind of melts away into the darkness around that stage. It's incidental to the bar. Yeah, it's good to have comfortable seating and tables for placing drinks upon, but you aren't really going to see the finer details during service. Everything — including the velvet curtains that shield the entryway and hang on the walls — sucks up light like a black hole. There are no distractions to the craft on display behind the bar. That's even partially mandated by the house rules: nothing that detracts from the experience is allowed. No phones, no shitty mixed drinks, no shitty attire, no large drunk crowds.
That's the key to Vault & Vator. The space comes alive because of its focus.
I went back a week after my shoot around midnight and sat at the bar. Service was in full swing. V&V was busy, but not overfull; lively, but not rowdy. Kirk and his staff were clearly having fun: smiles all around, and visible playfulness as they experimented with a cucumber shrub. They even offered a sample to the folks at the bar.
The vibes were right.
That achievement is harder than meeting or exceeding expectations. What's come out of my experience is an appreciation for the vision V&V has, and how well they execute on that vision — my expectations be damned.
No, V&V isn't some brand new, off-the-wall concept. Speakeasies have been around for ages, both in original form and reincarnated in recent years in larger cities. But it's something new for Greenville's landscape. It's something that this city needs to push the food & bev scene forward. And I'm excited by it.
Vault & Vator
655 S. Main St., Suite 100
Greenville, SC 29601