Nesting: Inside the West Loop lounge
Yes, it is expensive. Yes, you might cool your heels for a while on the sidewalk. Do yourself a favor and get over it. Never has the act of making a cocktail come so close to art, and those willing to suspend minor gripes will find themselves seduced by the unrelenting quest for newness that defines Grant Achatz—and makes The Aviary Chicago’s most exciting place to drink.
Two friends and I approached the West Loop lounge—which opened in late April next door to its sibling, Next, the equally new restaurant from Achatz and his business partner, Nick Kokonas—on a recent Wednesday at 8 p.m., a time, we reasoned, that would save us from a weekend-length wait. Ten minutes later, a maître d’ appeared and explained the available seating options: a highboy table near the metal scrim that shields the lablike kitchen, overseen by the 24-year-old executive chef Craig Schoettler, or a curved banquette in the main lounge. His apologetic tone left us bracing ourselves for a less-than-desirable spot, but as we settled into the banquette and took our first sips of the night—a potent but playful amuse-bouche of strawberry margarita, delivered almost immediately—we deemed the location more than satisfactory.
“This feels like my dream place,” sighed a friend as we all gazed around the low-lit room. “Something about it reminds me of my bedroom. Or the bedroom I wish I had.” Nodding, we noted the hushed vibe (aided by the carpeting and the lushly upholstered, high-backed seating) and the serpentine layout, which places each group in its own exclusive-feeling pod and gave us the illusion we were attending a private party.
The Aviary’s cocktail menu is arranged from sweet to bitter and from classic to newfangled. More fun, though, than poring over the descriptions is sneaking glances at nearby patrons’ orders, which results in a clear “We’ll have what they’re having” pattern. After eyeing the table next to us, we ordered the Blueberry ($20), a rye-based drink that arrives in a carafe stuffed with a mélange of fruit and flower petals, its complex flavor and color evolving as the florals infuse the liquid. We ranked the Blueberry above the Rooibos ($18), a gin-based concoction that bubbles in a vacuum-pot brew of lavender, citrus peel, lemon balm, and crushed almonds: comforting, but I couldn’t avoid a cough-syrup comparison.
Bewitched by the dainty presentation of snacks on another table, we tried some of those, too: wagyu beef with paprika, pumpkin seed, and yogurt ($6) and the Chowder, a fried croquette filled with clam and spicy corn pudding ($3). It’s hard not to imagine you’re swallowing dollar bills when everything is priced by the bite, but the plates’ elegance helped ease the sticker shock. Our tab came to $83 for two shareable cocktails and six bites of food, but our two hours at The Aviary were more compelling than some vacations I’ve taken. Still, I struggled to restrain myself from confiscating a camera wielded by a pair of overeager foodies across the way who gleefully snapped photos—presip, midsip, and postsip—of every last thing they put in their mouths.
But how could I knock their enthusiasm? The Aviary’s intoxicating originality is bound to leave anyone a little giddy—and isn’t that what a great night out is supposed to do? It’s easy enough to deplete your budget on bar snacks and beer at the legions of gastropubs popping up across town; The Aviary, however, is a razor-sharp vision of what’s next. Other proprietors will likely rush to catch up, and to them I say good luck. The Aviary has raised the bar for us all.
955 W. Fulton Market; theaviary.com
Photograph: Chris Guillen