A high-roller moment: Tim, The Chaser, and James Oraha in the vodka vault See more pics below.
My guard was up last night from the moment I drove onto a particular block of River North, where the nightclubs Crescendo, Y, Sound-Bar, and now Tzar Ultra Lounge are all clustered. Parking my car around the corner on Franklin Street, I spotted a trio of teetering, sequined young women who had just alighted from an early model Rav4 bearing a suburban dealership logo and who nervously clutched pink Victoria’s Secret shopping bags as they read the instructions on the meter box.
Reflecting on my own wardrobe choice—long sweater, leggings, studded flat sandals (I’d worn heels for six hours the night before and wasn’t about to step back into those torture devices)—I knew I’d be on the receiving end of a skeptical look at the door to Tzar Ultra Lounge, a club the media had been invited to check out two weeks after its opening. I therefore kept my sunglasses on and adopted a regal I’m-supposed-to-be-here-so-no-questions posture as I strode toward the velvet rope.
Bouncer in Black with Earpiece: Are you on the list?
TC: Indeed I am.
BB: For . . . ?
TC (tersely): Media party.
BB: Do you have your credentials?
TC (eyebrow raised): My credentials?
BB: A business card?
TC (digging in purse for phone): I’ll just call someone inside.
BB: Oh, no, that’s not necessary. Welcome. Come in.
Mollified by his handshake and smile, I made my way down a dark corridor and into the club, which turned out to be smallish (which I like) and full of people I knew (which I really like).
Our group bunched together beneath a spandex-clad violin player performing from atop an LED-lit banquette and dissected the visual feast before us.
“Did you see the carpet in the bottle-service area?” Barri asked. “It’s pretty chic. Kind of a Van Cleef pattern.”
“See that chandelier in the room with the ice sculpture? Looks cool. I want to go in there,” Tim said.
“Check out that long fire thing on the wall. Does it really put out heat? And there are iPads on the bar—what’s that’s all about?” I wondered aloud.
It was sensory overload, and we needed answers. Enter James Oraha, one of Tzar’s owners, who invited us into the 27-degree vodka vault and handed us a round of shots. “I’ve traveled all over the world, and I wanted this place to be like a hotel lobby on steroids,” he explained (thus the “ultra” in the name). Oraha and his business partner, Myles Cunningham, also own a contracting company called Level Builders, so they figured they would pull out all the stops and make Tzar a sort of showplace for future clients—which explains the many, many bells and whistles.
As we watched our breath come out in clouds and I felt my toes begin to freeze, Oraha ticked off some talking points that nearly had me choking on my lemon drop: The clientele at Tzar is mostly successful young Chicago traders, who arrive (sometimes via the club’s own Escalade filled with smiling female employees) to blow off steam and spend anywhere from $300 to $86,000 in one night. Bottle service is king: It makes up 75 percent of the club’s revenue. As for the vodka vault, if you have a question about any of the 150 available bottles, check the informational program on the iPads at the bar. “We have all the celebrity vodkas. You know, P. Diddy’s vodka, Bruce Willis’s vodka,” Oraha said. Wait. Bruce Willis has a vodka? Yes.
The vodka vault, Oraha continued, is an experience reserved for Tzar’s highest rollers. Whoever drops the most dough on a given night will be invited in for shots and photo ops. It’s a chilly status symbol, bar none, in a nightclub landscape rife with ho-hum VIP booths.
“Well it’s certainly a nice place to cool down after a night of dancing,” Tim chimed in. We posed for a photo in front of the slick, glowing sculpture. “I think we just checked something off our bucket lists.”
ONE NIGHT, TWO VAULTS: My second stop last night was Wicker Park’s The Bedford, which I hadn’t visited since the subterranean bar was still under construction. If you go this summer, I recommend the refreshing Cucumber Cooler cocktail ($9) as an antidote to muggy days above ground. Stay tuned for my full review of the hot spot in the August issue of Chicago.
Photography: James Atkins