Things are heating up at the Pump Room’s bar.
Everyone kept telling me the same thing about Public Chicago and the hotel’s two bars, the Library and the one in the Pump Room: “You’ll love them. They’re so New York.”
I hate talking about things in Chicago that remind people of New York. Don’t pat Chicago on the back for achieving a glimmer of New York greatness. Besides, the history of the place speaks for itself: Frank Sinatra, Bette Davis, and Natalie Wood were among the stars who warmed the leather banquettes in the Ambassador East’s heyday—before its decline and eventual closing last year.
I had been skeptical of Public since last summer, when I interviewed its developer, the consummate fast-talking New Yorker Ian Schrager, in a pre-rehab Ambassador East office with peeling floral wallpaper and a window-unit air conditioner. “I’m all about accessible luxury now,” said the man who had built his career on the appeal of exclusivity by cofounding the famous New York nightclub Studio 54 and, later, a string of highly designed boutique hotels around the world. Despite all his success, did this Yankee really know what was best for us?
On a Friday night shortly after Public Chicago’s quiet September opening, three friends—all of whom had lived in New York—joined me for drinks in the Library around happy hour. We claimed a white couch in the middle of the room. “Don’t get mad,” said Jeff, a designer who can name the price of any piece of furniture in a given place, “but it’s totally New York. And I like it.” There were expensive couches with cotton slipcovers, furry cream chairs near the tall, simple fireplace, columns of unvarnished wood, and formal photographs of women with aluminum-can curlers in their hair. Minus a few obvious tourists, our fellow barflies were a fashion-forward mix of distinguished Gold Coast power players and young but sophisticated model types. Even our waitress, in her slinky satin dress, was braving four-inch heels on the marble floor.
We drank a bottle of Lemelson pinot noir from Oregon ($52) and nibbled a plate of fried calamari ($10) while we people-watched with abandon. “Is that a cute guy over there?” asked my friend Robert. “Um, yes,” I replied. “They’re everywhere.”
Our bottle drained, we paid up and migrated across the lobby to the Pump Room bar for a round of more serious cocktails, like the Public Smash, a refreshing combination of rum, fruit, ginger beer, and mint ($12). There was nowhere to sit, so we clustered near the arched silver-leaf ceiling that bathes the bartenders in an ethereal glow. Everyone was staring into the restaurant, where captivating constellations of globe lights hung over diners’ heads.
Somewhere behind me, my friends were dropping phrases like “simply stunning” and “staple for a long time to come” as I sipped my vodka.
Leave it to an outsider to remake a local institution and still keep its aura intact. How New York.
1301 N. State Pkwy.; publichotels.com/Chicago
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Price paid by the Second City CEO Andrew Alexander for Booth One, the best seat in the old Pump Room for celebrities, including SC alums Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi (right, with Roger Ebert), and John Candy. The booth’s new home? UP COMEDY CLUB, which opens this month in Piper’s Alley.
Photograph: (top) Chris Guillen; (bottom) José M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune