For more photos of Curio, check out Seen on the Scene »
It was middle school all over again: In one corner sat our group of four, warily eyeing the other early arrivals at Curio, the latest “secret” lounge to open in River North. Across the room, a pair of women in short cocktail dresses ignored each other while texting. Two men at the end of the tufted leather banquette—and let me tell you, I’ve never seen so many tufts in my life—chatted over martinis, glancing up when a few more people trickled in the door. Everyone was dressed to impress, but so far, at 11 on a Saturday night, nobody was mingling.
“I guess it’s up to us to get this party started,” my friend Lizzie said to our waitress, whose outfit consisted of a backless burgundy satin jumpsuit and suede booties. We ordered our first round from the 29-strong, cash-only cocktail list: for me, the Trade Winds (Myers’s rum, Matusalem rum, apricot liqueur, coconut cream); for my date, a Sazerac (Rittenhouse rye, sugar, bitters, and absinthe); and for Lizzie and her husband, two Southsides (Oxley gin, mint, lemon, and egg white). “Ooh, you’ll be happy,” our waitress said approvingly. This was encouraging. When ordering a $12 beverage—and in the era of craft cocktails, where can you find one for less?—I like reassurance that I’ve made a good choice.
Curio is in the basement of Gilt Bar, which is not really a bar but a new restaurant in the old Aigre Doux space, at the corner of Kinzie and Franklin streets. We had eaten dinner upstairs at Gilt earlier that night, and the place reminded me of a more chichi Longman & Eagle: country gone urbane for the club crowd. When we ventured down to Curio—where, at 10:30 p.m., we were the first customers of the night—we entered a darker, plusher variation on the same theme: salon meets saloon, if you will. I had suspected my designer friends would have a field day with the décor (and I was right: “There is a lot going on. Did someone just discover Lightology for the first time?”), but I liked the mishmash of odds and ends paired with more polished finishes. An old record player sits in the hallway, and mismatched chairs pull up to a communal table in the middle of the lounge (all they lacked was people to occupy them). Given the surroundings, we tried to assess the relevance of our waitress’s getup. “Is she a genie?” I wondered. “Instead of a bottle, she lives in a treasure chest? Full of curios?” It was confounding, that jumpsuit—but, we decided, acceptably stylish.
Among Curio’s less ambiguous successes are the flawless cocktails (the minty Southside was our pick of the night) and the crowd-pleasing music (“I love Morrissey,” my date sighed more than once). Odds are, by the time this issue hits newsstands, Curio will no longer be the city’s best-kept secret. I hope so, because without people, it’s not a party. It’s just a pretty room.
GO: CURIO 230 W. Kinzie St., lower level; giltbarchicago.com
Photograph: Chris Guillen