Best of Chicago 2011: Bars & Nightlife

Our picks for best new cocktail lounge, hotel bar, gay and singles hotspots, and more

Downtown bar
Downtown
 

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BEST OF CHICAGO 2011:

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ARTS & CULTURE »
THEATRE »
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STORES & SERVICES »
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100 BEST BARS IN CHICAGO »

NEW COCKTAIL LOUNGE THE AVIARY Calling The Aviary Chicago’s best cocktail lounge is needless and obvious, considering the oceans of ink already expended on this months-old Fulton Market bar, but it must be said: This brainchild of Alinea’s chef, Grant Achatz, and his business partner, Nick Kokonas, is the most ambitious, fully realized, innovative twist on drinking the city has ever seen. One sip of its take on an old-fashioned (In the Rocks, $18), which requires the drinker to crack a bourbon-filled egg of ice with a miniature slingshot, and we were hooked. Not to mention attentive, polished service; a gorgeous room blissfully devoid of false Old World charm; and finger food straight out of the Alinea playbook. 955 W. Fulton Market; nextrestaurant.com. More on The Aviary »

NEW GAY BAR DOWNTOWN BAR & LOUNGE The name says it all: Downtown not only offers gay men (and the straights who love them) a gathering spot near the Mag Mile and the Loop but also ditches the kitschy drag shows and raunchy go-go dancers of Boystown for a more relaxed vibe. A dramatic barrel ceiling in the main bar area, pretty pressed-tin ceilings elsewhere, and the DJ-enabled basement lounge cater to well-groomed regulars, who often find themselves mingling with tourists who just thought the place looked cool. 440 N. State St.; 312-464-1400, downtownbarandlounge.com. More on Downtown »

NEW HOTEL BAR ANGELS & KINGS When the rock-’n’-roll-themed bar Angels & Kings moved from its original Clark Street location in River North to the first floor of the Hard Rock Hotel, it was a minor Michigan Avenue milestone: a lobby bar with no wood paneling, no floral-upholstered couches, and no fireplaces. Instead, the spot—owned by the Fall Out Boy bassist, Pete Wentz, his Crush Management team, and Becker Entertainment—is a gothy escape from the tourist throngs, with lush drapes, barely glowing chandeliers, and, occasionally, the king of night owls: the touring rock star. 230 N. Michigan Ave.; 312-334-6722, angelsandkings.com

DIVE MAKEOVER MARIA’S PACKAGED GOODS & COMMUNITY BAR Bridgeport never felt so exotic. When Ed Marszewski, the man behind the indie rag Lumpen and the gallery Co-Prosperity Sphere, tweaked his mom’s 25-year-old bottle-shop-slash-dive last year, he knew what he was doing. First there is Maria’s new façade—chic sign, varnished paneling—clearly overseen by an artistic eye. Then there’s the act of entering the bar: Just try not to feel like a character in a mystery novel as you cross the front room, a shoebox of a liquor store specializing in craft beer, before passing through a walk-in cooler door into the bar in back. And then there’s the beer list: more than 400 options, all recorded in a menu—more of a chapbook, really—that’s updated weekly, like clockwork. Your new routine: Pick up a savory pie next door at Pleasant House Bakery, order a Dark Horse Too Cream Stout, and grab a table in Maria’s backroom. 960 W. 31st St.; community-bar.com. See photos of Maria’s »

PLACE FOR BEER AND SAUSAGE BANGERS & LACE Craft beer and juicy sausage in a room that looks a little like Grandma’s parlor and even more like a modern-day hunting lodge? Not a new idea, but Wicker Park’s Bangers & Lace does a chic yet comforting recession-era combo. With its antlers-meet-Edison-bulbs décor and a certified cicerone on hand to help drinkers choose from the 30-strong draft list, B&L felt like a smooth-sailing ship from the moment it opened—which should come as no surprise since the spot is from the seasoned team behind Bar Deville, Nightwood, and Duchamp. The kitchen turns out a tempting lineup of Sheboygans, kielbasas, hot links, and even a foie gras corn dog. Our sole complaint? The place is always packed. 1670 W. Division St.; 773-252-6499, bangersandlacechicago.com

FRENCH REVIVAL MAUDE’S LIQUOR BAR Do bistros in France have exposed brick walls, subway tiles, and murky lighting like Maude’s? Not the ones we recall (Le Grand Colbert, Robert et Louise), yet Maude’s had us at bonsoir. Cozy banquettes and a menu peppered with pommes frites and cassoulet help. Plenty of seafood, too. (We loved the mussels steamed in white wine and served with crusty bread.) Steak tartare stuck to the basics and also won us over. Then we found out that the crème brûlée is caramelized with a hot iron instead of a blowtorch. Now that’s French. 840 W. Randolph St.; 312-243-9712, maudesliquorbar.com. More on Maude’s »

RIVER NORTH SINGLES SCENE PUBLIC HOUSE If you’re a young single woman in Chicago and you want to meet as many young single men as possible in one place, do not go to Wrigley Field. Instead, head to Public House, a sprawling new bar in River North. The table taps and flat-screen TVs draw a reliable weekend gaggle of guys who love sports and the girls who love guys who love sports. Not in the market to meet? The long beer list, excellent mussel bowls, booths that can fit all your coworkers, and views down State Street make this a solid week- day place to decompress. 400 N. State St.; 312-265-1240, publichousechicago.com

 

Photography: Chris Guillen

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