By Liz Massey, March 2018 Issue.
There is sometimes a misconception about what happens when a person, or a group of people, act on their “grand passion.” It isn’t always the case that this person becomes the best in the world at what he or she does; sometimes, the path to excellence lies in sharing what one loves with others in a fabulous new way.
This is the approach that Original Gravity, a bar located at the northwest corner of 12th Street and Highland Avenue in central Phoenix, has chosen. Envisioned and launched by three local women, the establishment curates the best of American beer, wine and sake, and complements it with a menu full of familiar-but-frisky takes on traditional bar offerings.
“The gap we were trying to fill wasn’t in the brewery landscape, because we are not brewers,” explained Holly Knudsen, one of Original Gravity’s three co-owners. “We are craft beer lovers who want to feature as many local brews as possible. We wanted to bring an exceptional craft beer concept to the area, serving elevated bar food and wine-based cocktails that are unique.”
After restyling their location to create what Knudsen calls a “modern, inviting and artsy” feel, Knudsen, joined by her sister Michelle Bocchino and their friend Natasha Turra, set about turning Original Gravity into a place where neighbors might run into each other, but where the topic of conversation could well be the unexpected food and drink, and not just the local gossip.
Collecting The Right Ingredients
A popular bar, like a knock-your-socks off entrée or a mind-blowing cocktail, doesn’t happen unless the right ingredients are part of the mix. In the case of Original Gravity (called “The OG” by frequent visitors), the establishment’s recipe for greatness started with the backgrounds of the three owners. Knudsen and Bocchino, in particular, come from a culinary family.
“Holly and I are sisters, and our grandmother was famous for her cooking, especially her pies, Christmas candy and pickles,” Bocchino explained. “We get our love of cooking from her … I guess you could say it’s in our genes.”
Turra brought her passion for beer to the table, as a self-described “beer geek” and occasional home brewer. Although Bocchino and Knudsen both had some hospitality industry experience, all of them were working 9-to-5 jobs in other industries when they collectively made the decision to open Original Gravity.
The next raw material for their enterprise was discovering a setting that was hungry for the type of place they wanted to open. They were able to secure a space in a two-story, L-shaped building originally designed by Bennie Gonzalez in 1963.
All three women lived within two miles of the bar’s present location. The building had accumulated some less-than-contemporary features over the years, so local design-build developer Bill Tonnenson was called in to give the space a facelift.
“We actually fell in love with the building and space in 2015 when we signed our lease,” Knudsen said. “It went from 1980s eyesore to eye-popping with the renovation that Bill Tonnesen did …The residents all watched and followed our progress and everyone has said what a big improvement it has been to the neighborhood.”
When the renovations were complete, Original Gravity’s 1,750-square-foot space shed a nightmare of stucco for a modern, industrial feel. There are two patios – in front and in back – with the rear patio featuring wooden benches and tables and welcoming four-legged visitors along with their human owners. The interior sports a U-shaped bar and various high-top tables and seats. One wall is tiled in hundreds of beer logos from various brewers and is a popular photo-op spot (don’t believe us, see page 30.) And, yes, patrons can expect the two flat screens behind the bar to be set to all the big games.
The women designed and participated in the build-out, providing much of the artwork, as well as the materials for the beer tile wall and a penny wall, which is located between the all-inclusive restrooms. They also helped repurpose several reclaimed bowling alley lanes into six table tops, some of which still have visible lane markers. And visitors rarely pass up the opportunity to turn the “Rocket Girls” interactive art piece into a Boomerang for Instagram.
Surprises by the Plateful (and Pintful)
Once the bar space had been designed and furnished, the trio of owners set out to design the menu. Knudsen is in charge of the food, kitchen and menu; Bocchino has overseen the development of the wine list and cocktails; and Turra has developed the beer strategy for Original Gravity and governs what comes out of the establishment’s 20 rotating beer taps.
Original Gravity keeps its food menu modest in size, but not necessarily in scope. The scratch kitchen, helmed by head chef Carly Bielecki, offers signature selections for both vegetarians (try the Mushroom Po’Boy) and meat lovers (you’ll appreciate the Beef on Weck, composed of prime rib on a brioche bun) alike. The popular shared plates range from the pork belly cheesy fries and the OG Chef’s Board, a rotating selection of artisan cheeses and charcuterie with varying seasonal accompaniments, to the IPA-glazed bacon and the OG Poutine, a combination of french fries, Wisconsin white cheese curds and beef gravy. For more from chef Carly, visit echomag.com/meet-chef-carly.
According to Bocchino, The OG’s unique wine/sake cocktails caught the attention of patrons, as had the legendary “secret sauce” that is served with fries and sandwiches like the Bee’s Knees Fried Chicken Sandwich. Beer lovers are kept on their toes with a mix of local, regional and national brews, including pours from breweries in Phoenix and Tucson.
“We are lucky to have many quality brewers in our area, such as Wrenhouse, Tombstone, The Shop Beer Co., Huss and Helton,” she noted. “We’ve also tapped into the Tucson market which is huge. We’ve had a Ten55 collaboration on tap, a Sentinel Peak, a Borderlands, and are working with other breweries down there to bring them up north.”
A Place to Belong
Knudsen estimated that 60 percent of Original Gravity’s customer base, mostly from the surrounding central Phoenix neighborhood, identifies as part of the LGBTQ community. However, although she and Turra identify as members of the LGBTQ community, she asserted that their goal for the bar was to provide a tasty, fun and interesting experience for everyone, without specifically reaching out to LGBTQ visitors.
“We wouldn’t advertise ‘we are straight’ or ‘we are gay,’” Knudsen said. “We feel the importance lies in equality for all.”
The owners acknowledged that the learning curve associated with starting a bar has been “eye-opening.”
“There are a million factors and rotating puzzle pieces that you have to figure out,” Knudsen said. “We are constantly striving to bring in local activities, like tap takeovers, pub crawls, collaborations with other establishments, live music and so on.”
While Knudsen, Bocchino and Turra may spend their days solving logistical puzzles at The OG, and may challenge themselves by setting out tempting menus to tantalize their customers, it appears likely that if they continue to share their love of unusual comestibles and beverages, they’ll remain on the right track.
Bocchino concluded, “We’ve been told all of our lives that we should open a restaurant. … How many times do you hear this stuff before you eventually say ‘Hey, maybe we should do this?’”
The OG will celebrate its first anniversary on May 12 and everyone’s invited.
4700 N. 12th St., #101, Phoenix
Hours: 11 a.m.- 9 p.m. Tues-Sun