Laila Borokhim's near west side restaurant Noosh is having a soft relaunch this Thursday evening as a sober bar.
"Noosh will be constantly reinventing itself," Borokhim said. "It's a weird space. It's the best way for me to give this a try."
Noosh opened first in a former Taco Bell on South Park Street in 2016, then had a brief life as a food cart. It opened in a quonset hut at 1431 Regent St. in fall 2017, serving pierogis and malawach. Borokhim liked to call her menu "Jewified world cuisine."
In this latest stage of its evolution, the focus will be on making it a place for nearby students and others to gather when they want to hang out late, after the coffee shops have closed, but not have a drink.
"In my industry, after work, the option is mostly you go to a bar," she said. "I don’t want to go sit at home alone, and I don't want to be in the atmosphere of the bar either. If you're not drinking, it's not the most pleasant experience."
From 4 p.m. until midnight Thursday, Friday and Saturday, Noosh will sell nonalcoholic cocktails for $6-$9 and nonalcoholic beer, like Old Milwaukee ("that's kind of a joke") and Sharp's. The cocktails will be based on distilled nonalcoholic "spirits" from companies like Seedlip.
Low- and no-ABV cocktails have become a major trend. There are sober bars in New York City and Los Angeles, spots with names like Getaway and Listen Bar. In Crystal Lake, Illinois (between Rockford and Chicago) is The Other Place, a sober bar open since 2013.
The availability of NA spirits has allowed these bars to give nondrinkers something beyond nonalcoholic beers or Sprite from a soda gun. A description of Seedlip's Garden 108, for example, sounds like gin: "A floral blend of hand-picked peas and homegrown hay from founder Ben Branson's Farm, with traditional garden herb distillates in celebration of the English countryside. Simply serve with tonic and a sugar snap pea to garnish."
"Their beverage options don’t resemble anything like sugar-soaked virgin piña coladas, daiquiris or Shirley Temples," Eater wrote about the trend a few months ago. "They’re using shiso, fermented pineapple, kombucha and bitters."
It's not just sober bars. More spots are serving low- and no-ABV options alongside their classics and house originals. Robert Simonson, the New York Times cocktail writer, noted that "people are using it to pace themselves. They get a cocktail and then they get a non-alcoholic cocktail, and that way they last twice as long through the night. It’s just strategy."
Much like the east side arts venue Communication bills itself as a sober space for people to see music and poetry, Borokhim hopes Noosh can be a spot for people who want to live "in a cleaner way."
Last year Borokhim ran the Lounge in the Madison Labor Temple for awhile, which she said was a negative experience for her. Noosh presents a way to do things differently, to use the infrastructure she already has to try something that connects people at night, without feeling weird that their cocktail doesn't have alcohol in it.
Noosh will keep its beer and wine license for now, and Borokhim has flexibility with the food. She'll have snacks, host pierogi nights and continue to make "shakshuka in the shack" on Saturday mornings. Noosh could also host pop-ups from food carts, like Robin Room does on East Johnson Street.
"That's one of my side passion projects," she said of the pop-ups. "I want other people to have opportunities I do in the food world."
Borokhim also owns Joon, a Persian/Iranian restaurant at 1835 Monroe St. She ran her first restaurant, Layla's Persian Food, on South Butler Street, from 2014-2018.
Borokhim isn't sure whether Noosh's new concept will work on Regent, especially with most of the student population out for the summer. But she already know she'll learn from trying.
"There are places like this out in Los Angeles, where it’s a normal thing to do," she said. "Like, 'Hey, do you want to meet after work and have cocktails?' and they just don't happen to have alcohol. That’s what I’m hoping to bring to Wisconsin."