Cocktail Bars, Second City Syndrome, and Chicago’s Most Ingredient-Exclusive Dive

The latest reason to lament living in Chicago—the fact that its cutting-edge bar scene is several years behind superior ones (guess where). Why? No single-liquor bars. Does that exclusivity even work? Why, yes, and Chicago has an institution to prove it.

I had been studiously avoiding Lauren Viera’s poker-faced linkbait essay about how Chicago’s bar scene is inferior to New York’s because of a dramatic lack of single-liquor-exclusive bars—perhaps we can get some TIF money on that—but it finally made it into my e-mail account. For the most part I try to avoid anything reeking of Second City Syndrome because it usually results in less thesis and more button-pushing. But having recently come back from New York, I have a short list of things that city is demonstrably superior in:

* The subway. My one takeaway every time I visit is how easy it is to get around. On the other hand, for all the complaining people do about El stations, ours are better maintained. New York City stations are clammy and dank. It’s a small price to pay for their ever-presence (and the reduced noise of New York’s subway) but just saying.

* The High Line. It really is a step forward in urban parks. One thing I appreciate about it is the wooden lounge-benches. Cities have grown terribly paranoid about the homeless sleeping in touristy places, often choosing to solve the problem with planned discomfort (like angled benches). I don’t know how the park deals with the homeless—on a busy Friday afternoon, there were none in evidence—but I’m glad they chose not to use backbreaking design solutions.

* Central Park. Much as I love Millennium Park’s geegaws, the serenity of the city’s immense downtown park is timeless. It’s not that I even prefer it to Humboldt Park, my favorite park in Chicago, but Central Park’s location in America’s densest neighborhood is special.

* Food trucks. Yes, we have them here, but you have to plan around them.

One thing that didn’t come up in my conversations with New Yorkers: bars that serve only one type of liquor. (Perhaps because there aren’t as many as implied in the essay, as Paul McGee* points out.) The folks at LTH Forum deal with the piece deftly, as did Mike Ryan and Charles Joly in Time Out; this was my favorite part:

I had planned to open a Fernet Branca-centric bar (in the New York sense of serving only Fernet Branca based cocktails and then only to a clientele desiring to wait on-line for an hour to enter my boîte) in a condemned two-flat in Back of the Yards, but after reading Ms Viera’s brave (in the Josh Noel sense) argument for the narrowest possible conception in hospitality, I’ve reevaluated and am forced to conclude that the ne plus ultra of customer-eccentricity would be a Malört-centric bar. (I intend to name my grand venture “Salon Peripeteia.")

People were confused as to how the lack of such bars makes Chicago somehow inferior, which was mostly a flaw of the ersatz hook. And they were confused about the supposed benefits of exclusivity. What good does it do to force single options on customers?

Well, reader, it does a lot of good—it can make a place wildly popular, the kind of destination that visitors from all over are determined to visit. And you can find that sort of elite conception in hospitality here in Chicago… if you know where to look.

Gin bars? Soup Nazis? Please, the Billy Goat invented your game.

* Ex-Whistler bartender, Melman advisor, and future Tiki-drink slinger.

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