Gold beads curtain the floor-to-ceiling windows, only slightly hiding a view of metropolitan Charlotte. Vanilla candles light every tabletop, and the luxuriously cushioned seats beg you to recline. The atmosphere and decor only hint at unprecedented style and class; behind the black marble bar, though, something like witchcraft happens.
Up on the 15th floor of the Ritz-Carlton, two of the most creative forces of the Queen City’s culinary scene converge in the The Punch Room. A cocktail lounge that resurrects the sepia-tinted exclusivity of the 19th century drinking den, The Punch Room is the lovechild of craftsman Matt Carnevale and local mixologist Bob Peters. This sexy, but quiet collision of sophisticated small plate craftsmanship and big city-inspired mixology is nestled within and owned by the Ritz. The hotel provides the resources, and these two gentlemen provide the wizardry.
If the promise of otherworldly cocktails draws guests into The Punch Room, craftsman Matt Carnevale’s inspired small plate offerings are surely the force that keeps them there. From delights as reserved as the smoked pecan hummus to the flamboyant North Carolina Siberian Caviar, The Punch Room’s resident craftsman subverts bar food expectations with every order. It seems Matt Carnevale almost had to do great things with food. In young Matt’s Italian American household, food was “what brought the family together.” The cuisine of his heritage wasn’t his only exposure to the refined fare that separates the cooks from the craftsmen, though: Due to the diversity of the D.C. area, Matt was fortunate enough to discover his love of food in a variety of cuisines. Seventeen years on, this love story continues to develop and flourish in The Punch Room. Carnevale’s passion ensures that he “never stops learning,” and he is constantly discovering new methods of “making people happy with food.” Carnevale’s culinary art, coupled with the seductive atmosphere and Peters’ mixing wizardry, guarantee that The Punch Room is “a place to linger.”
No day is typical for a Chef.
-Chef Matt Carnevale
Head mixologist Bob Peters is a man who delights in oddities. One of the most challenging drinks requested of him is a vodka tonic — not, of course, because that beverage is difficult to whip up, but because making a boring cocktail “pains him.” Anything expressly ordinary about a cocktail is the one thing that, Bob insists, must be made exciting and interesting. In his Strange Brew — a mixture of homemade hazelnut milk and Old Scout bourbon from West Virginia — he substitutes a gargantuan coffee ice cube for the usual rocks. Rather than diluting the flavor, this coffee cube melds with the bitters and cream to create a coffee-infused cocktail, the taste of which actually changes every couple of minutes. Peters seems driven to catalyze new experiences: “Persuading someone to step out of their comfort zone, to try something they don’t think they’ll like, then seeing that new thing turn into their new favorite cocktail…that is easily my favorite thing,” he muses.
The Punch Room isn’t your typical cocktail lounge because Bob Peters isn’t an ordinary barkeep. Bob is an alchemist, and The Punch Room’s unconventional cocktail menu is solely his creation. Even the classic drinks found in the lineup are graced with some of Peters’ flair. While Bob has drawn inspiration from sources as varied as cooking recipes, glassware shapes, and the cocktails of antiquity, his primary inspiration is the change of season. Crowding up the Ritz’s rooftop organic garden are an abundance of fresh herbs and honey straight from the beehive — ingredients for a new line of summer-themed beverages that are sure to transform an ever-evolving menu. Bob considers himself a proponent of what he calls the “farm-to-glass” movement. This mixologist is acutely concerned with the origins of his organic ingredients, and he maintains absolute control of what goes into his drinks. Patrons of the Ritz would be hard-pressed to exhaust the many and varied offerings of the den’s cocktail line. Enthusiasts who manage, however, will be relieved to know that Bob is “in the lab now, working on the next menu,” promising a slew of “never-before-seen creations.”
It pains me to make a boring cocktail even if it’s what someone’s asked for.
– Bob Peters
Bob, much like The Punch Room itself, relishes a challenge. When questioned about the hurdles presented by the North Carolina’s alcohol laws, he just shrugs. “One of the most creative places you can be is a place with constraints,” Bob observes jovially. “You have to think creatively to achieve what you want.” The Punch Room is a place that does more than reach its goals, though. It excels, because the forces behind it cherish their respective crafts. In the words of mixologist Bob Peters, “You can really taste it…when something is made with love and when it isn’t.”
Photos by Jamey Price