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At Nostalgia Room, Lawrence’s new nonalcoholic bar, sobriety and sentimentality mix together

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Memory and feelings of family pervade the Nostalgia Room’s walls, shelves, trinkets and vintage furniture. The pieces converge to tell the story that led to Emily Kate Johnson’s sobriety and, soon after, her sober bar’s origin.

A wall of family photos across the intimate lounge grabs your attention as you reach the top of the stairs to the Nostalgia Room. The centerpiece is a framed photo of Johnson’s late grandma’s kitchen sink in front of an open window. Surrounded by hundreds of smaller family pics, Johnson captured the snapshot right after her grandma’s death at her Oklahoma farm.

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“As far as you can see, it’s the original 40 acres in the back,” Johnson said. “I always imagined that that’s where my grandpa went when he passed away — he passed away before her. I just always kind of imagined him out in the wheat field. And so I had to open (the window). Felt like I needed to let her go out there.”

On the opposite side of the lounge, another framed photo sits on a shelf near Johnson’s bar sink. It captures a vase of a dozen red roses that were gifted to that same grandma by Johnson’s grandpa. One of the main sources of inspiration for the bar, he found sobriety in 1961, and for the next 50 years, he would regularly bring home red roses for his wife.

The rose, which Johnson considers a powerful family symbol, made it onto the bar’s logo and appears throughout the temperate experience Johnson launched Oct. 28 in East Lawrence. Located above Repetition Coffee, the Nostalgia Room pays homage to those who came before Johnson and helped pave the way toward her journey to sobriety and her dream to own a bar.

‘They have a whole different mindset about vice’

Johnson began drinking young, and she fought a decadelong battle with alcohol and addiction. Although she doesn’t necessarily intend for the Nostalgia Room to serve as “a kid hangout,” she loves the idea of fostering young people who might’ve already grown disillusioned with alcohol. 

“That generation is growing up with legal weed. They have a whole different mindset about vice,” Johnson said. “It doesn’t need to be about what’s in your glass, and you can be loosened up by just being comfortable in your own skin instead of having to drink yourself to numbness to feel like you’re having any fun.”

Born in Oklahoma, Johnson moved to Kansas at a young age and attended Lawrence Public Schools, graduating from Lawrence High. An artist, Johnson pursued at 19 a collaboration involving food service and art.

“It was like an art show where the art and the food were coordinated together, and it was really fun,” she said. “It’s here now, too, in a lot of ways, obviously. Everything on the menu is very thematic.”

At 21, she learned to mix cocktails at the Bourgeois Pig, which she still considers home, and where she met Repetition’s owner, Amy Pope. Johnson calls Pope her support system.

By 22, Johnson had drawn up plans for her dream bar. Since then, she’s learned from some of the area’s best, including Kate Frick, former owner of Myers Hotel Bar in Tonganoxie, and Shantel Grace and Rozz Petrozz, founders of Saltwell Farm Kitchen, near Overbrook.

“(Frick)’s a huge inspiration for the way I bartend,” Johnson said, pointing out two vintage chairs that came from the Myers — also the venue where she married her husband. “I was very classically trained, and Kate kind of showed me how to freestyle.”

Johnson credits Grace for giving her the boost of confidence she needed to move toward her dream by showing her an alcohol-free bar was possible.

With a resume that also includes farm work and mentoring at Crum’s Heirlooms in Bonner Springs, Johnson isn’t just taking classic cocktails and serving them up alongside nonalcoholic tropes at the Nostalgia Room.

“I’ve never liked the word ‘mocktail’ and I’ve never liked ‘virgin,’” she said. “I think all of those are kind of degrading and make them sound lesser than, and they just aren’t. Those drinks are honestly harder to make than anything I ever made with alcohol because I don’t have 2 ounces of whiskey to rely on.”

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On the menu: Cocktails featuring ingredients sourced and grown locally whenever possible. That means local dried herbs and shopping at Checkers and the Merc Co+op, Johnson said.

Although Johnson uses traditional bar language — words like spirits and wine — everything at Nostalgia Room contains between 0% and 0.5% alcohol by volume and won’t cause intoxication, according to marketing materials.

“I’m just really excited about expanding it from there because, once again, there’s so many ingredients, opportunities when you have a glass to fill,” Johnson said. “There’s a lot you can work with.”

A taste of the fall menu includes Literal Interpretation, featuring Vera Gino, ​​Pentire Distillate, green tea vermouth, plum vinegar wash and house cocktail onion. Corner Post is made with Everleaf Forest, chamomile calendula, lemon and vanilla-vinegar. Housemade blueberry-balsamic, cascara tea, hops, honey and Aura Bora Ginger Meyer Lemon sparkling water round out the Sunday Dress.

Nonalcoholic slow sippers, wine, beer, coffee, teas and soda waters are served up in the Nostalgia Room with prices ranging from $3 to $12.

Alcohol-free spirits, Johnson said, aren’t easy to procure locally and typically require shipping. She’s currently testing recipes for a whiskey-like substitute to use in an alcohol-free old fashioned.

“I can’t just go to the liquor store when I run out and grab another bottle and come back,” she said.

Reclaiming spaces, redefining social

A significant portion of Johnson’s recovery involved returning to and reclaiming the spaces where she’d become an alcoholic.

“And that’s not safe for a lot of people, and I don’t know if it was necessarily safe for me,” Johnson said. “But it worked, and I just wasn’t willing to give up.”

At 30, Johnson feels a newfound freedom in her choice to quit drinking two years ago. She hopes to offer that liberation to her customers and aims to shift the focus from alcohol consumption to the social nature of the bar and the people who gather there. She recognizes each individual has a unique relationship with alcohol, and people who don’t drink have myriad reasons for teetotaling. 

“There are some ways in which it is exactly like a bar, and then there are some ways in which it isn’t. I hope it’s all the good parts and not the bad parts,” Johnson said. “I’d eventually like to expand into a bigger business whenever that feels right,” Johnson said.

The Nostalgia Room is located inside and upstairs at Repetition Coffee, 512 E. Ninth St. The lounge is open 5 to 10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Party bookings and drink catering also are available. For more information, visit the bar’s website at nostalgia-room.com.

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Tricia Masenthin (she/her), equity reporter, can be reached at tmasenthin (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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