What's the buzz?

So many bars. So many cocktails. So little time to test them all, you say? We hear ya. From neighborhood hangs to spacious lounges, we've rounded up the hottest themes in this year's crop of new Chicago bars and clubs.

Weed Street scene
Weed Street sprouted two new nightspots in 2005 from the Bortz Entertainment Group, which already helmed the street's Hogs & Honeys and Sangria. First, we had the much-delayed summer take-off of Jet Vodka Lounge. After opening, the all-white interior and menu of more than 130 international vodkas were white-hot. But somewhere along the way, Jet experienced turbulence and hasn't been able to retain the much-desired buzz among local jetsetters. Then, early this fall, RadioStar opened with the Chicago debut of "The Awesome '80s Prom". Taffeta, legwarmers and mullets are back and sillier than ever. You can finally get your fix of dancing to one-hit wonders all night long.

Star power
If the popularity of Us Weekly and In Touch tells us anything, it's that we totally love our celeb gossip fix. So when Celebrity came to Wicker Park, everyone was dying for a peek inside this corner lounge that repaints its interior seasonally and features funky graffiti art. Though we haven't spied any A-listers here, scoring a much-sought-after seat in this tiny spot makes us feel special. For some actual star spotting, RiNo made waves with Michael Jordan, Jeremy Piven and Third Eye Blind sightings. Plus, the newly opened Cabaret got a visit from hot "Prison Break" cast member Amaury Nolasco. But, as with showbiz, only time will tell who has staying power.

Better late than never
Here's a tip about Chicago nightlife: Bars don't always open when planned. But sometimes, good things are worth waiting for. In the case of Four, a 2004 New Year's Eve opening was a tad too ambitious. But, eventually, it was bye-bye Big Wig, and the new club snagged a late-night following for its DJs and reasonably priced drinks. Enclave was on our radar for what felt like forever. When it burst on to the scene, some people whined about lines, cover charges and pricey cocktails (the specialty, table service-only sippers average $15), but many love the first-class treatment, martinis by mixologist Myong Park and two-level space for scouting hotties.

Come, stay the night
This year, gas, food and lodging was a popular theme. Motel Bar scored points for a kitschy yet classy '70s vibe, though it's debatable how much the interior looks like its namesake. The orange hues and retro-cool furniture won us over, but so did the old-school cocktail menu and "room service" nibbles. On the other hand, the hotel theme at Hard Drive is quite literal. It's actually inside the lobby of the Hyatt Regency. We're sure this Vegas-y club has freaked out its fair share of conference-goers, but it's also gained a following devoted to Friday and Saturday nights on the dance floor. Finally, Jerry Kleiner added the funky, eclectic and artsy Victor Hotel to his list of Chicago notables. The lounge went from stylish and mature to a wee bit snobby at the door and monopolized by an uber-trendy crowd. But we give props to the spot taking a second look at its door policy, and we'll check in again soon.

Making a statement
Minibar gets a nod for opening this fall as a smoke-free spot. Several weeks later, however, the smoking ban passed. Hey, at least this Boystown hang was ahead of the game. Did we mention the bartenders are hot? And, the opening of the New Checkerboard Lounge for Blues 'n' Jazz in a sparkling-new Hyde Park location meant the legendary Chicago venue was reborn. Does that mean its long-suffering fans have stopped singing the blues?

Karen Budell is the metromix nightlife producer.Originally published Dec. 28, 2005.

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