A few weeks back my story on Chicago’s flourishing cocktail scene was published in the Los Angeles Times Travel section. The piece was so well-received that it was the in the top 3 most emailed stories on the entire LA Times website! Apparently the readers found the Second City as inspiring as I did, which completely validifies the damage I did to my liver during those two long weekends of “research.”
I think all of the indulgent boozing and dining finally caught up to me, because I’ve been sick as a dog the past few days. On a positive note, being pent up indoors means I can finally post on some of the unsung gems that didn’t make it into the story. Above you can see a stack of just a few of the menus I aquired from round 2 of investigation — evidence that there’s just too much ground to cover in a 1,400 word piece.
One of the out takes was the Drawing Room, a literally underground speakeasy-style bar and restaurant in the Near North Side whose bartenders take on a decidedly gastronomic role. I was really lucky to have round 2 coincide with Chicago’s renowned restaurant week, where chief mixologist Charles Joly’s culinary-style menu really shined. Joly (pictured above) uses house-made tinctures, grenadine, and shrub, a fruit-based drinking vinegar, in many of his cocktails. My favorite drink of the night was the Eve’s Answer, made with Olmeca Reposado, Seedling Farms cider, spiced raisin syrup, mezcal mist, and cinnamon– a seasonal, spicy little tipple that was a nice accompaniment to my first of many meals in Chi Town. Each dish on the three course tasting menu was paired with cocktails rather than wine. They even sent out amuse bouche cocktails, a nice little Midwestern touch to tease the palate. For ultra-curious cocktailians seated in the dining room, the restaurant offers table side cocktail service via an antique bar cart — a unique chance for diners to get an up close look at how the drinks are built.
It was hard not to get up close and personal at the Matchbox over in River West. Situated at the intersections of Milwaukee, Ogden, and Chicago Streets, this sliver of a bar is about as intimate as they come. It’s wide enough to house a wooden bar and some stools, and that’s about it. But the cocktails are solid, and they make a perfect Manhattan that lives up to it’s name. Can’t be mad at that. Even if you’re not a diehard fan of a dive bar, it’s worth stopping in; the place has been around for over 75 years!
Those historical joints aren’t hard to come by in Chi Town, and I talk about that enough LA Times piece, but that doesn’t mean things are stagnant. In fact, there’s a lot for the city to look forward to. Lauren Viera’s recent (and very controversial) piece in the Reader asserts that Chicago’s cocktail scene is “too midwestern” and that its “bartenders must be everything to everyone,” leaving it lagging behind New York city and the rest. I disagree — and so do Paul Mc Gee, Mike Sula, and Julia Kramer. I found the lack of pretense endearing, and there are plenty of establishments and educated bartenders pushing the scene forward.
A glimpse into the future takes us to the soon-to-open bar/restaurant La Sirena Clandestina, located across the way from Grant Achatz’s progressive culinary cocktail bar, the Aviary (their cider is pictured above, and more deets are found in my story). I was tipped off to the whole deal by Justin Anderson, one of the La Sirena’s managing partners who will be creating a cocktail menu to compliment the nuevo Latino chef John Manion‘s cuisine. Anderson was working behind the bar at Branch 27 the night we met, but he can also be found mixing up drinks at the Bedford. He’s originally from sunny San Diego, but like so many of us was drawn to the uniquely historic cocktail scene that Chicago has to offer. The man also happens to make a mighty fine Old Fashioned, my benchmark for judging the legitimacy of a bartender. I can’t wait to come back to check out the new spot once it opens later this year.
Perhaps I’ll have to organize my own #ChiTownChowDown, which a few of my blogging brethren — L.A. and O.C. Foodventures, Gourmet Pigs, Wind Attack and Hey Hey Scenesters — did this past weekend. Until then, cheers!