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Hegsted’s new Gilded Unicorn restaurant embraces the gaudy and magical

Busy restaurateur Adam Hegsted mixes a cocktail in his newest restaurant, the Gilded Unicorn, set to open in early December in the former Catacombs underground space on South Monroe Street in downtown Spokane on Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2015. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Busy restaurateur Adam Hegsted mixes a cocktail in his newest restaurant, the Gilded Unicorn, set to open in early December in the former Catacombs underground space on South Monroe Street in downtown Spokane on Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2015. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

The Gilded Unicorn lives in the old Catacombs underneath the Montvale Hotel.

The subterranean space feels a bit magical and otherwordly, or at least Old Worldly, like an ancient European wine cellar but without the wine barrels and low-slung ceilings.

That could just be the unicorn talking, though.

The new craft cocktail bar with re-imagined American eats is going for a particular look: gaudy.

The Gilded Unicorn is a speakeasy that doesn’t take itself too seriously, an underground haunt done in natural rock and wood and faux gold – lots of faux gold.

The theme is carried out everywhere – in metallic unicorn busts that watch over tipplers from the walls, in paintings of the magical woodland beast and in spray-painted gilt frames that hold 19th century paintings, etchings and prints of art works by Diego Rivera, Pablo Picasso, Vincent Van Gogh and Salvador Dali.

The atmosphere is equal parts old-timey and whimsical – with a side of downright goofiness. In a word, it’s “ridiculous,” said Adam Hegsted, who dreamed up the concept and owns the restaurant.

“It’s going to be so funny and tacky,” he said. “It’s going to be fantastic.”

Gilded Unicorn opens Dec. 4 or 5.

Hegsted took inspiration for the name from old British pubs that tend to have names such as the Prancing Pony, Drunken Duck, White Horse, Three-Legged Mare or – and this is real – Swan with Two Necks. He also named his newest restaurant for the specialness of the spot, which he sees – like a unicorn – as a wonder-filled rarity.

“It’s an amazing space,” said Hegsted, who signed the lease in September. “I’ve always liked this spot.”

Catacombs shuttered in spring 2013 after more than a decade of serving wood-fired pizzas and German food in the hotel basement. The 116-year-old building belongs to Spokane developer Jerry Dicker, who bought it last summer in a foreclosure sale.

The previous owner bought the hotel in 2004, when it was run-down and mostly vacant. Rob Brewster filed for Chapter 11 reorganization in February 2013. While Catacombs closed, the hotel continued operating.

Hegsted was taken with the space’s soaring ceilings, which make the location feel less like an old boiler room and – with its rough-hewn rock walls – more like some kind of sitting room in a medieval castle. Despite the lofty ceiling, the long, rectangular main room somehow feels cozy and intimate. The bench-lined walls help. So does the fireplace that anchors a short back wall.

Sit around it and sip on whiskey, the spirit at the heart of the Gilded Unicorn’s craft cocktail menu. That’s similar to its sister restaurant, Wandering Table, in Kendall Yards. Hegsted also owns Yards Bruncheon in Kendall Yards, Eat Good in Liberty Lake, The Cellar at 317 Sherman in Coeur d’Alene and a catering company called Le Catering Co.

Unlike Yards Bruncheon and Wandering Table, which both got help from a Kickstarter campaign, Hegsted fronted the money for Gilded Unicorn – about $60,000 in all, he said. But building two restaurants from the ground up wasn’t as difficult as this project.

“This was way harder because you have to envision something totally different,” said Hegsted, who lives in Coeur d’Alene and creates the concepts for his restaurants but doesn’t do the day-to-day cooking and managing.

Still, “I try to get to all of them every day,” said Hegsted, who expects to visit Gilded Unicorn a bunch in the beginning.

He and chef Matt Mayer, who manages the kitchen at Gilded Unicorn, spent weeks cleaning up the space, which sat largely untouched for the past 2 1/2 years. Parmesan, red pepper flakes, salt and pepper remained in shakers on shelves. Tables, chairs, benches and wine glasses left in racks above the bar gathered dust. Cobwebs clung to the ceiling and the stairs descending to the basement.

There was much work to do: replace sinks, buy a new dishwasher, add a fryer.

Much of the smaller kitchen equipment that remained had to be thrown away. Hegsted also ditched most of the tapestries that hung in the old eatery.

“We’ll keep some of them because they’re funny,” he said. But, “We want it to look like it was in the era of the 1920s” – not an Eastern European beer hall. “We want it to feel very comfortable in here.”

The space seats about 75. Two booths for eight sit at the bottom of the stairs. Oversized light bulbs, another “funny” touch, hang in the entry. Throughout, the shininess of all of the gold is tempered by the grain of all of the oak wood.

“We had to refinish pretty much everything,” Hegsted said – benches, tables, chairs, the bar, the floor.

Dishes, categorized on the menu as “Less Hungry” and “More Hungry,” are approachable, eclectic and elevated American classics served on Grandma’s rose-petal plates.

“We don’t want it to be a special occasion place,” Hegsted said. “It’s a lot of nostalgia. There’s a lot of classic food, modernized.”

Look for appetizers such as the $9 brick-fired pretzel with Gouda fondue and beer mustard, $9 Waldorf cheese ball, $7 Cobb wedge salad, $6 ambrosia salad, $3 beer peanuts and smoky deviled eggs with hints of maple and chili, four for $5.

Larger dishes include the $9 Sparkle Burger, $8 Unicorn Mac-and-Cheese and $7 Sloppy Donald (sloppy joe-style brasied duck on a potato roll) with slaw and sweet pickles. Get a half or whole order of braised and roasted duck wings with apricot honey mustard for $9 or $15.

Just for fun, there are three caramelized-onion-stuffed Swedish meatballs for $9. For hipster vegetarians, there’s the $8 Guinness Braised Roots Hand Pie. For those wistful for their 1980s youth, there’s the $9 Tatertot Casserole, elevated with braised Kobe beef and wild mushrooms; the $10 Rice-y-Roni Stroganoff with slow-cooked risotto and chive crème fraiche; and the $16 “Winner, Mini Chicken Dinner,” buttermilk fried game hen with chicken-fat potatoes.

“It’s like our only fried dish,” Hegsted said. “It’s going to be insanely good.”

Desserts are $4 to $6 and filed under “Happiness.” This includes s’mores ice cream sandwich, sugar cream pie and orange “salad,” reminiscent of the one Hegsted’s mom used to make with layers of orange cream and mandarin oranges on butter crust.

If you belly up to the bar, expect vintage glassware, housemade bitters and freshly squeezed juices. The bar also features six rotating taps and $8 cocktails, filed under “Modern” or “Renewed Vintage.”

Modern libations include the Spaghetti Western, with tequila, mezcal, amaro, orange bitters and grapefruit; the O. Julius with rum, lemon, vanilla bean, cream, orange bitters, nutmeg and curacao; and the Pink Elephant with gin, blackberry liqueur, maraschino, grapefruit and lime.

Or, for $24, order the daily punch bowl, a changing blend of liquored punch.

After that, though, you might want to take the elevator to the hotel lobby rather than stumble up the steep set of stairs to the sidewalk.

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