A cut steel sign lets patio guests know they've arrived at The 502 Bar & Bistro. | Photo by Steve Coomes

Word to the wise: Don’t believe everything you hear about a restaurant before it opens, regardless of whether it’s street talk, hearsay, employee chatter or even info straight from an owner’s lips. Plans change, designs shift, permits push back deadlines, budgets shrink and real-world thinking kicks in.

In my job, I’m expected to know these things in advance, but sometimes it’s better when I know next to zero and wind up surprised. That’s what happened when my wife and I visited Tuesday’s soft opening of The 502 Bar & Bistro (10401 Meeting St.) in Prospect.

Not that we really had any choice other than being resigned to ignorance about the whole project. Despite regular conversations with consultant chef Peng Looi and executive chef, Ming Hsuan Pu, neither volunteered menu details. And owners Fran Yarmuth, Scott and Jennifer Cheatham posted so few photos on Facebook there was relatively no hint as to what this supposed gussied-up sports bar spot would look like.

The long and well-stocked bar at The 502. | Photo by Steve Coomes
The long and well-stocked bar at The 502. | Photo by Steve Coomes

Which was good, because the term “sports bar” rarely conjures up images of a restaurant as handsome, contemporary and sleek as this. You won’t find neon Budweiser signs or posters of illustrated cleavage stretching a St. Pauli Girl’s dirndl. Don’t scan for a deflated autographed football or bowling trophy or Wall of Foam list because they’re not there. Sure, there is handful of wide-screen TVs around the main room and one on its expansive patio, but in a culture of electronic screen addicts, such amenities hardly register as sporty anymore. This is a rare space that bridges elegant and relaxed, and it’s perfect for Norton Commons.

At approximately 5,000 square-feet, 502 is generously spacious, seating just 150 in its main dining room. Ceilings soar at least 15 feet up, meaning that despite the bare wood tables and polished concrete floor, crowd noise doesn’t overwhelm.

I don’t know enough about furniture to describe the white and black chairs at every table and along the long and incredibly well-stocked bar, but I can tell you they’re among the comfiest to ever coddle my carcass. As I inch closer to my fifty-second birthday, such features have become unexpectedly important.

(*Click any photo below to enlarge and start slideshow.)

Described as “modern American,” the menu draws deeply from the protein-heavy canon of the lower 48 while reaching overseas to borrow hummus, Korean-style short ribs, French onion soup, pappardelle carbonara, spring rolls and a Cuban sandwich—occidental though they’ve become.

Entrée prices range from $18 (vegetable stir-fry) to $41 for filet mignon. Sandwiches cost between $12-$15, salads, $7-$16 (for a house salad or a salmon and kale salad, respectively), and appetizers from $8-$14 (chicken wings and the aforementioned short ribs, respectively).

As mentioned, there’s no shortage of wine, spirits or beer here. The five-item craft cocktail list is short for now as bartenders get their shakers wet, but owners say it’ll grow over time. Given the $15 gin martinis found at one prominent downtown hotel bar, prices here are very affordable. The Cool Hand Cuke (tequila, lemon, cucumber and Rum Chata liqueur) comes in at $8, and the 3 Amigos (bourbon, tequila, mezcal, cucumber, lime and Apocalypse ale) tops out the list at $10.

After one more soft opening evening on Wednesday, doors open to the public on Thursday, July 21. Dinner-only hours are 4-10 p.m., Monday-Friday, and 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday-Sunday. Call 502-742-4772 for more information.