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Claire Jeffers

Claire Jeffers is a freelance writer living in Portland, Maine. Follow her on Twitter: @claireeats

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Posted: December 16, 2014

The Bearded Lady’s Jewel Box offers ‘purposeful,’ unmatched atmosphere, cocktails and service

Written by: Claire Jeffers
Frothy deliciousness, the Mezcal Sour ($10) is made with lemon juice, egg white, mole bitters and agave syrup.

Frothy deliciousness, the Mezcal Sour ($10) is made with lemon juice, egg white, mole bitters and agave syrup. Claire Jeffers photo

Nathaniel Meiklejohn goes by at least two other known names: Nan’l and The Bearded Lady. Nan’l is the name he’s had since childhood, ever since his older brother couldn’t properly enunciate Nathaniel. The Bearded Lady is a more recent alter ego of sorts. It’s a name Meiklejohn and his bearded friends gave each other one night in the basement of his apartment – a game/music/drinking space they’d created to pass the time during a brutal Maine winter.

Thereafter, the group of friends called their speak easy “The Bearded Lady,” and Meiklejohn would host his legendary word-of-mouth- and donation-only cocktail nights in his Portland living room under the same name. Since then, Meiklejohn – a jovial guy who sports a beard worthy of a lumberjack competition and has an unabashed fondness for wearing the occasional dress and string of pearls – has adopted the moniker for himself and used the persona as inspiration for his three-month-old cocktail bar, The Bearded Lady’s Jewel Box – The Jewel Box for short.

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Situated on Congress Street in Portland’s Arts District, The Jewel Box is steps from Local 188, where Meiklejohn worked for several years as mixologist extraordinaire and bar manager. It’s also just around the corner from his aforementioned apartment. A food service veteran of 14 years, Meiklejohn is known around town as kind of a freelance cocktail mastermind, and has waited for the right time to open a place that his craft cocktail-loving following would appreciate.

The Jewel Box, which was funded in part by a successful Kickstarter campaign that raised $23,122, is deliberately hard to find.

“I’d done the Friday night drink nights and that was obviously hidden because it was my apartment,” said Meiklejohn, “but when I was opening I had to choose between budget items and timing issues, and you know it takes a while to get a sign made and approved, and as I thought more about it, [the fact that the bar is inconspicuous] might help to filter out troublemakers.”

The filtering out of troublemakers is no laughing matter for Meiklejohn. In fact, “a beautiful and safe place” is a quote from his Kickstarter manifesto and has remained one of the most important aspects of The Jewel Box experience since day one.

“We all know the super drunk Congress Street people that get let into places, or bars in the Old Port where women feel bombarded by men,” Meiklejohn said, “I’ve found that by being nice to everyone like a host at any party would – like the thing where if you’re nice to everyone that comes into your house until they give you a reason to make them feel unwelcome – well, that system seems to be working so far.”

It’s true – the vibe at The Jewel Box is something you can really only experience, but suffice to say it’s good and friendly and warm, with an unmatched ability to completely mellow you out.

“I definitely wanted it to feel purposeful,” Meiklejohn said, “I didn’t want a bunch of, like, posters and random coffee shop artwork – I wanted everything to be a little more meaningful. I’d rather have nothing on the walls than throw something up just because.”

The décor is minimalistic, yet kitschy in some respects – like the knick-knacks that seem to have been procured from travels and garage sales and consignment shops (not unlike the décor in Meiklejohn’s apartment). In some ways, The Jewel Box is a little like stepping inside a Wes Anderson film – or maybe the set of Mad Men. And that’s not a bad thing. There’s no clutter or piles of junk, it’s all – as Meiklejohn says – very purposeful.

Perhaps the most prominent decoration at The Jewel Box is the floor-to-ceiling mural that Meiklejohn commissioned local painter Beth Kleene to create. Kleene used to work with Meiklejohn at Local 188. The painting is of two bearded ladies sitting down together (playing a game? Having a drink? A discussion?) with a depiction of a big galaxy in the background, a beaded curtain, and two cats – one of which is a depiction of Meiklejohn’s.

There’s a mezzanine floor that overlooks the one-room bar, where Meiklejohn has arranged a velvet chaise lounge and a low-hanging, gaudy chandelier. Stacks of records sit in one corner and a Victorian-era mirror idles upright on the floor.

Once the aesthetic and the vibe sink in, there are the drinks. Meiklejohn creates a small set of cocktails that change weekly. Also, In’finiti Fermentation & Distilling collaborates with The Jewel Box, brewing a special beer that can only be found here.

“The menu changing thing is from my Friday night drink nights,” Meiklejohn said, “it’s from my love of cocktails – or actually my love of the vast amount of cocktails – you know you could open a bar and serve just what was available back in the 1800s? But today, there are just so many recipes and I don’t want to pigeonhole ourselves with one menu.”

The drinks, like everything else about The Jewel Box, are deliberate and full of character. The Mezcal Sour (all cocktails are $10) is lemon juice, egg white, mole bitters and agave syrup. It’s frothy and smooth, with just the right amount of tang.

While the cocktail list is small (you can expect about five with a punch priced at $5), and there’s always at least one beer collaboration with In’finiti, Meiklejohn plans on adding cheap canned beer and maybe some more partnerships with other breweries.

Meiklejohn hadn’t planned on serving food – there wasn’t a kitchen in the space before he moved in, so that would have added an extra cost – but he’s enlisted his friend from music school, Lex Jones, to create a mighty list of cocktail party-style snacks, like roasted chicken poppers, cheese ball with house made sesame cracker (all crackers and breads made by Lex), cured meats and pickled items (quail eggs, vegetables).

Bar snacks, such as cured meats, pickled qual eggs and tender chicken “pops” are offered by chef Lex Jones at the Jewel Box.

Bar snacks, such as cured meats, pickled qual eggs and tender chicken “pops” are offered by chef Lex Jones at the Jewel Box. Claire Jeffers photo

“Lex is just one of those people that everything he does is awesome and he’s constantly improving,” Meiklejohn said.

For next month, Meiklejohn has plans for the mezzanine – ideally, he’d like a second bar up there. He’s looking to host private parties or have guest brewers come in for a “meet the brewer” night. Only three months from the start of his first official bar, Meiklejohn seems to have lots of new ideas.

“I have so many big things that I want to purchase to make the bar run better – the goal is to just get the place so well run and so busy that I’m open seven days a week,” Meiklejohn said, “in a few years it’d be great if the staff could function without too much oversight – so that the bar is essentially self-running.”

For now, The Bearded Lady can be found behind the bar (and with his crew on busy nights) Tuesday through Saturday from 5 p.m. to 1 a.m.

The Bearded Lady’s Jewel Box

WHERE: 644 Congress St., Portland
PHONE: 207-747-5384
HOURS: 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. Tuesday to Saturday
SPECIALS: Weekly cocktail specials, often based on a theme; beer collaborations with In’finiti Fermentation & Distilling; virtually everything at the Jewel Box is special.
AMENITIES: Front window treatment for privacy; lots of potted plants; dim lighting fixtures; candlelight; decorative trinkets; mezzanine for super-private experience and lounging; funky little pink bathroom that’s tidy and smells nice; some coat hooks; comfy bar stools that are nice to look at; communal seating; jazzy music; and a generous dose of good vibes.
PARKING: On street
BOTTOM LINE: The Jewel Box is mellow and classy, but not in a fancy way. There are moments when you feel like you’ve stepped inside a Wes Anderson film, and others when you might be on the set of Mad Men. Either way, Nan’l Meiklejohn, a.k.a. “The Bearded Lady,” and his staff will see to it that you have a well-crafted cocktail, some light snacks and a whole lot of good service.

Claire Jeffers lives in Portland.

Twitter: @claireeats

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