Très cozy: A corner by the fire at Le Bar
Last week, when it was a bizarre but welcome 52 degrees outside, The Creative Director and I went on a Parisian minibreak in Chicago’s Gold Coast. I had a coupon for a one-night stay at the Sofitel that was about to expire, so we folded a few things into the vintage leather valise that TCD’s mother had just given him for Christmas and took the Red Line downtown.
We checked in around 5:30 p.m. (“Bonjour madame! Bonjour monsieur! Bonjour, bonjour!” the hotel staff trilled as we crossed the lobby), stowed the valise in our 25th-floor room, and rode the elevator with its black-and-white Eiffel Tower mural back downstairs to the lounge, Le Bar.
It had been a year since my last cocktail at Le Bar, and I’d forgotten how much I like the place. The large illuminated clock behind the bar, the purple leather barstools, the library books and velour drapes, the tiny fiber-optic lights in the ceiling that form a starry sky overhead: Maybe it’s not all looking quite as of-the-moment as it did when the hotel opened in 2002, but it’s a pleasing arrangement nonetheless.
The Creative Director, valise in hand
We headed to the room’s rear corner—i.e. the best people-watching spot, as determined by yours truly—and settled into two armchairs facing out toward the action. “Bonjour!” said our waiter, placing menus on the table. We chose cocktails from the seasonal list, available through the end of the month: a Peppermint Snowflake (Godiva white chocolate liqueur, Mount Gay vanilla rum, peppermint crunch; $13) for me, and a hot buttered rum (brown sugar, butter, Myers’s dark rum; $11) for the Director. When our glasses arrived, we raised them in a toast. “Bonjour!” I said, my college French having completely vacated my brain. We sipped. “Mine tastes like a candy bar,” said TCD, passing the steaming rum to me for a nip. “Mine tastes like a candy cane,” I replied—and indeed, crushed bits of peppermint clung to the rim of the glass and subsequently to various regions of my face and hands.
Observation time. “Is there a dance later?” the Director wondered, pointing out several women in long gowns and updos. I shrugged, tilting my head toward the table next to us, where an entire family bantered animatedly in French. “I never realized this place is so genuinely Frenchy,” I remarked. “Maybe it’s like when Americans go to Paris and eat at McDonald’s; French people come to Chicago and go to Le Bar.” Having completed a number of French classes at the Alliance Française de Chicago, TCD then strung together a few words that were no doubt extremely perceptive. I haven’t the slightest idea what he said.
We split a croque-monsieur with frites (a Nueske’s ham and Comté cheese sandwich with fries; $13), and I pointed out two French people I actually knew. “See there, the woman with the dark hair by the window? She’s French. She hired me for my first job in Chicago. And now she works at the Alliance!” I told my now-beer-sipping date. He nodded. “Oh! Oh! And see that guy sitting at the bar with the flowing locks?” Another nod. “He’s French, too. A hairstylist. He once Brazilian-straightened my hair and then attempted to take our interactions to the next level, but I didn’t realize what was happening because he was speaking so much French.”
By the time we paid our check and gathered our things (we were on a strict timetable to make it to a showing of True Grit, a decidedly un-Francophile film selection), Le Bar was le packed. If we’d arrived at 7 p.m. instead of 5:45, we’d never have snagged the table we did. “I guess it’s still the place to be, especially if you’re French,” I said to TCD. “Très populaire!” he replied.
On our way out to the lobby, we passed the once amorous stylist. “Pointy-toe alligator boots?” the Director whispered. “Well, you know,” I explained. “He’s Euro.”