Drinking, from dance club to dive

Chicago’s cocktail scene has reached a crucial crossroads.

Thanks to the classic cocktail revival that intoxicated New York and San Francisco before landing in Chicago five years back, drink enthusiasts have options. Classics (martinis, fizzes, collinses) made a big splash and don’t look to be disappearing any time soon, and alongside them are thoughtful, market-fresh concoctions that follow Chicago's well-trodden path from farm-to-table.

Later this month, the local cocktail scene is likely be thoroughly shaken up with the highly anticipated opening of Grant Achatz’s bar, The Aviary. But for the time being, our glasses are full with a number of venues that emerged during the winter. Given the very different offerings and approaches among the five here, the only thing consistent about Chicago's cocktail scene is that it’s more diverse than ever.

Maude’s Liquor Bar

830 W. Randolph St., 312-243-9712

Although it's emphasized that "bubbly is the ultimate companion" to its array of French bistro-inspired fare, Maude's offers a well-balanced cocktail list divided into three complementary categories: sparkling, stirred and smashes.

Drinks: The Smokey Violet smash stands out, and it's nice to see Small's gin, from tiny Oregon distillery Ransom Spirits, featured despite the otherwise Eurocentric focus.

Food: Traditional oysters, tartines and pommes frites; not-so-traditional pork belly and French onion fondue

Room: Mismatched chandeliers, distressed mirrors and bistro chairs downstairs; candlelit dark wood upstairs

Vibe: Upbeat and sophisticated, but restrained — parfait

Price: Cocktails: $14; average entree: $14

 

 Leopold

1450 W. Chicago Ave., 312-348-1028

Fittingly, beer is the beverage focus at this Belgian-inspired eatery, but cozy booths and small plates to share fit well with a lengthy cocktail hour. Currently just four house drinks grace the menu, and assistant manager Josh Kaplan plans to expand when warm weather yields fresh ingredients.

Drinks: All four showcase boutique Colorado distillery Leopold Brothers, which approached its shared namesake upon opening. Recommended: Dripping Dream, which is sweet but balanced.

Food: Oysters in a variety of broths, veal sweetbreads, smoked rabbit and other Euro comfort foods

Room: Golden hues and soft lighting in the dining room; quaint wooden cafe seating and a plush booth in front

Vibe: Quiet and cozy, ideal for a catch-up cocktail

Price: Cocktails: $11; average entree: $15

 

Blokes & Birds

3343 N. Clark St., 773-472-5252

Billed as a Chicago pub with traditional English fare, B&B boasts the largest cocktail list among its British brethren (Bangers & Lace, Owen & Engine). A whopping 15 specialty drinks are on the menu.

Drinks: Bourbon is the current focus of B&B's list, developed by former Alinea sommelier Justin Leone. Mind the Bollocks (Evan Williams bourbon, vanilla and cherry liqueurs, lime juice and egg white) does well, according to owner Daily Webb, as does the Aperol- and Pimm's-based B-Cup.

Food: Standard (fish and chips, burgers) mingles with surprisingly different (curried cauliflower with caramel apples, lobster-stuffed deviled eggs)

Room: Fireplace-lit dark wood paneling, exposed brick, smartly designed communal tables

Vibe: Comfortable with an edge, which could be improved upon with a different soundtrack

Price: Cocktails: $8-12;

average entree: $13

 

Bonny's

2417 N. Milwaukee Ave., 773-486-8480

Adopted into the Simone's/Boiler Room family by owner Russ Grant and manager Andy Gould, onetime dive bar Boni's has transitioned into late-night hipster hang Bonny's. Canned (and some craft) beer is served side by side with cocktails, but don't expect any fancy garnishes.

Drinks: Basics such as Manhattans and old-fashioneds appease the cocktail set, but an ill-mixed Tom Collins made this patron wince.

Food: None

Room: Small, dark and dated, with gritty Chicago character to spare

Vibe: Chameleon-like Bonny's shifts from neighborhood tavern to after-hours dance party when DJs take over the place on weekends.

Price: Cocktails: $5

 

Proof

1045 N. Rush St.. 312-397-1045

A velvet-roped nightclub is typically the last place we'd willingly grab a nightcap. But with local master mixologist Bridget Albert behind the market-fresh drink menu at this Gold Coast hotspot, we were curious: Can a lounge that serves 1,200 people on a Saturday night pull off made-to-order cocktails?

Drinks: A dozen simple, fresh drinks are on the menu, but the Strawberry Balsamic Martini (vodka, strawberries, lime, simple syrup, balsamic vinegar) does best with this crowd. Four punch bowls round out the offerings.

Food: Proof has a mixology kitchen but doesn't serve bites.

Room: Dark-lit dance floor; separate lounge when you need to escape

Vibe: Loud and crowded. It's a dance club, people.

Price: Cocktails: $11-15; punch bowls: $250-$325

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