Boasting renowned chefs and ambitious menus, a new slate of Chicago drinking destinations is turning the idea of “bar food” on its ear.
Blistered shishitos with bonito at Bar Ramone. (Bar Ramone Photo by Jeff Marini/Courtesy of Lettuce Entertain You)
From suckling pig ham at Rick Bayless’ new Bar Sótano (443 N. Clark St., 312.391.5857) to Szechuan belt noodles at Bixi Beer (2515 N. Milwaukee Ave., 773.904.7368), Chicago foodies are finding that, these days, the city’s bar scene boasts some of the most exciting places to belly up for food as well as drink.
“Bars are the energy and social life of the restaurant, where the locals hang out,” says Marc Jacobs, executive partner and divisional president of Lettuce Entertain You, who oversees the company’s new Spanish wine- and tapas-centric Bar Ramone (441 N. Clark St., 312.985.6909) in River North.
At 70 cozy seats, Bar Ramone is the smallest full-service concept in the Lettuce universe and a signal of the trend to neighborhood scale without giving up culinary sophistication in the way of jamon Iberico and authentic Galician octopus. “Like Japanese food, Spanish food has an emphasis on quality ingredients,” says chef-partner Hisanobu Osaka, who previously worked with Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto.
Among talented chefs choosing a scaled-back setting, Ellison Park of Income Tax (5959 N. Broadway, 773.897.9165) worked at Parachute and famed Paris neo-bistro Le Chateaubriand before decamping for the Edgewater tavern.
“We think the bar/restaurant thing is what it means to be a good neighborhood resident,” says Collin Moody, general manager and partner at Income Tax. “We do put as much care in wine sourcing and the beverages as we do the food, which I think is rare.”
Rick Bayless has always shown respect to the bar—including running his own microbrewery Cruz Blanca— but his new subterranean Bar Sótano is his first cocktail-forward concept. The mercado-inspired drink list, developed by daughter and spirits director Lanie Bayless and bar manager Roger Landes, highlights fresh juices, homemade vermouth and savory flavors of chile and avocado. They accompany Mexican bar bites such as sweet and spicy Yucatan fried chicken, Ensenada mussels and a paella-like arroz with chorizo and shrimp.
“After 30 years, keeping our restaurants fresh and vibrant is probably our biggest challenge,” says Bayless. “With Bar Sótano, we wanted to do something really unexpected, really different, and I think we achieved that in glorious fashion.”
The new-wave foodie bars specialize in leisurely visits, something Young American (2545 N. Kedzie Ave.), new in Logan Square, aims to achieve with low-alcohol cocktails and nonalcoholic drinks made with the marijuana byproduct cannabidiol, or CBD, alongside stronger stuff.
“We call low-ABV cocktails ‘sessionable cocktails,’” says co-owner Wade McElroy, using a beer term. “We like to keep the drinks where people can stay on their feet and have fun for many hours.”
Nick Jirasek of Old Habits at Ludlow Liquors has designed the anti-bar-food menu using ingredients like seaweed and techniques like fermentation that, similar to the bar focus, have a healthy aura but remain fun and approachable (the “calmonds” almonds are roasted in CBD-infused olive oil, for instance).
With nearby Bixi Beer, partner and chef Bo Fowler teed off on her strength in beer pairings at Owen & Engine and combined it with a dream to open an Asian fusion restaurant. Eymard Freire brews with ingredients like jasmine tea and Sichuan peppercorns, which, says Fowler, “either blends or acts act as a counterbalance or surprise that adds to the food.”
The fusion menu borrows from several Asian cultures, and the addition of the brewery, visible in an adjoining atrium, pushed the project from nearly 6,000 square feet to 12,000. She adds, “We still think of Bixi as a neighborhood restaurant, just one with a few more seats.”