Union Public House:Comforting, Southern Pub

Inside the single-story, white, concrete building on South Reus Street, a crafty Southern pub is serving inventively executed comfort foods, classic cocktails and cornbread as dessert.

Blake Rushing and Patrick Bolster came together to open the Union Public House after many years of separate experiences, projects and goals in the service industry.

The two met in high school in 1997 and became good friends, but went on to pursue different paths after graduation.

Rushing moved to Orlando to attend Le Cordon Bleu Culinary Academy in Orlando. After working at Wolfgang Puck's in Downtown Disney, he received the opportunity to intern in London for three months at the Savoy Grill, Gordon Ramsay's classic British and French restaurant, which opened in the late 1800s.

Rushing worked 17 hours a day, five to six days a week.

"My first month there, I thought, you guys are crazy, you're sleeping like three and a half hours a night, and then the second month I thought -- I can't wait to come back here," he said.

After the internship, Rushing went back to London and worked for two years at the Savoy Grill, and when Ramsay opened a restaurant in New York, he moved back to the states to help open it. After that was another move to Vancouver, for another new restaurant.

After a couple years of bouncing around to new locations and learning from different culinary masters, Rushing moved back to his hometown Pensacola in 2009. He opened his own restaurant, Elise Coastal Dining, which was nominated for the Best New Restaurant in America by the James Beard Foundation; started a catering company called R & R catering; prepared weekly specialty five-course dinners at the Lee House; and opened a new restaurant, Type.

"All of that was good, but it was leading up to something bigger," he said.

 

Meanwhile, Bolster was playing basketball for Pensacola Junior College on a scholarship after high school.

After playing on the team for about a year, Bolster realized that wasn't what he wanted to do anymore, and began looking for a job.

"A friend got me a bussing job at Flounder's on the beach in 2001, I was 19," he said. "I didn't know what I wanted to do, I just knew I needed a job."

He worked his way up, waiting tables, working as a prep chef, an expo, a barback, and then eventually a bartender before leaving Flounder's. He took a break from the restaurant industry for a few years and moved to Atlanta to study real estate development.

"I moved back to Pensacola in 2007 to finish school, and I thought the best job for the money would be bartending again," he said.

He took a job at the Fish House, and worked his way up from server to bartender for the second time. He bartended at Suite, downtown, and helped open the Bridge Bar in Gulf Breeze. Then, he settled in behind the bar at 5 1/2, making artful classic cocktails.

"Each time I went to a different place, especially after being at the Fish House, I started to realize that I could make a profession out of this," he said. "I developed my palate for certain tastes, how to serve people better, and each place I went I was honing different skills."

Rushing ran into Bolster at 5 1/2 and the two caught up, sharing stories and ideas from the last few years.

"I remember he made the joke that one day we were going to open our own place," Bolster said.

After catching up, when Rushing left for the night, he leaned across the bar and shook Bolster's hand, confidently declaring they would work together one day. At the time, it seemed like a nice thought and nothing more, Bolster said.

About a year ago, Bolster started making plans to open his own bar. He wanted to incorporate food as well, and reached out to a couple of people he knew in town.

"It just didn't feel quite right, so I thought hey, maybe I'll call Blake -- I know he has Type but he might be interested in branching off," he explained.

The timing lined up perfectly with Rushing and the two moved forward with planning their new venture.

Once the project was announced, dedicated chefs, servers, cooks, hostesses and bartenders from around Pensacola eagerly applied to work for the Union and share the excitement for the project, resulting in a full staff of truly passionate and eager employees.

The Union represents a literal union of ideas, the community and a shared desire to create more cultural layers of interest in Pensacola.

"The name of it is a gastropub -- but it's really a culmination of great things in our area," Bolster said. "Pensacola is unique because we are so close to such great seafood, but we're also so close to Alabama and we can get Duroc pigs like nobody's business."

Rushing and Bolster began to create a menu that involved their favorite Southern dishes and beverages, while incorporating a modern twist and their year's of individual experience.

"I've been able to make a lot of food I've grown up around, and people seem to love it; I think it's a comfort-food thing," Rushing said.

Many of the items on the menu are recognizable: Burgers. Steaks. Fried green tomatoes. And then there are items that'll make you look twice -- like a Scotch egg or sticky toffee pudding.

"It's very easy to try and do real high-quality foods and you end up going over people's head's sometimes, because often, as a bartender or a chef, you want to show off what you can do, with a scant measure of this and whisper of that," Bolster said. "It's a lot harder to do a sophisticated flavor that's approachable that everyone understands."

Rushing is offering delicious, easy entree options, but also managed to work in some of his early overseas experiences.

"I lived on Scotch eggs when I was in London -- they were always just kind of sitting out at room temperature, in packages in the staff canteen, and when you’re working all day and don’t have time to sit down for 17 hours, you would run down and grab one of those," he said.

The Scotch egg at the Union is soft-boiled instead of hard-boiled, and wrapped in Andouille sausage, and pork cracklings, then deep fried. It' inventive, comforting and certainly Southern.

Another take on a childhood favorite is the corn dog.

"Instead of using meat for the corn dog, we used shrimp and grouper, basically just made a regular corn dog out of that," Rushing said.

It still comes on a stick, with a cornbread breading and a side of tartar, or ketchup if you're feeling nostalgic. The menu also features hearty dinner entrees, such shepherd's pie, blackened redfish, a smoked brisket sandwich, and steak and eggs.

Catherine Hedden has been to the Union twice since they opened, and is already planning her next meal.

"What I appreciate most, is the food is exceptionally good, and the atmosphere is casual and comfortable," she said.

Hedden said she felt like there can often be a misconception that a casual restaurant might border on dingy, but the Union captures both a relaxed and upscale vibe, while remaining clean and beautiful inside.

Fresh, fragrant flowers sit atop the dark wooden tables, and minimal hanging ceiling lights offer a warm ambiance. The ceilings are high, and a large, double, sliding door lets fresh air spill into the bar.

A deerhead named Leroy is mounted on the white wall behind the bar. It's named after a deer Rushing's grandpa shot.

"They've just done such a nice job with everything, and there are some really great familiar things on the menu, but they all have a little twist to them," she said.

Rushing and Bolster have worked in handfuls of other restaurants and bars, but it's clear the Union is different, and a unique representation of their talents that they seem happy and excited to share with Pensacola.

"For me, I've been able to have a lot more fun," Rushing said. The relaxed and cheerful attitude toward the restaurant, and the goals and expectations surrounding it, resonates throughout the entire dining experience.

"This is a place we can really show Pensacola as a shining star," Bolster said.


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Reservations

(c) 2018 The Union Public House • 309 S Reus St., Pensacola, Florida 32502 • Telephone: (850) 607-6320
Open Monday - Saturday: 11AM to ????

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