The inside of Hubbard Inn
A clean, well-lighted place: Hubbard Inn

What would Ernest Hemingway think of the new River North concept bar Hubbard Inn, inspired by the writer’s European exploits? Would he see himself in the slick 8,000-square-foot tavern, the imitation Picassos, or the library containing, in the words of co-owner David Mitria, “5,000 unique books that are real”?

To blow the ending, I don’t think Papa would make it five minutes before jumping in a time machine back to 1920s Paris—even though the pub, outfitted with vibrant paintings and gleaming brass fixtures, is easy on the eyes. Maybe a little too easy.

Soon after my group of four settled in for an 8 p.m. Saturday reservation, a beaming waiter approached. “Good evening, friends!” he greeted us. Although he peppered our interaction with more “friends” than a political address, his delivery was charming enough to win us over—even after he announced the three cocktail selections. Having read about a ten-strong list, I asked what had become of the other seven. “We were packed last night,” he explained. “The bar kept getting backed up.” Instead of initiating a Hemingway-style brawl, I ordered a deliciously minty, bourbon-based River North Smash ($9) and surveyed my surroundings.

Several lounge-restaurant hybrids—particularly Maude’s and Curio—are doing this chichi bohemian thing: the vintage knickknacks, the furniture hauled back from abroad, the café-society airs. I like those places; I feel chic and grown-up when I’m at them. But I also get the sneaking suspicion we’re all faking it. We’re not the original thinkers and artists who drank in these bars’ inspirations long ago. We’re youngish office drones burned out on massive clubs and thirsty for a more sophisticated way to relax. Rather than pull one of those 5,000 books off the shelf, we’re more likely to discuss which of our fellow patrons would appear on a hypothetical season of The Real Housewives of Chicago. Which is exactly what my friends and I did as we shared a smorgasbord of consistently strong small plates by the chef Bob Zrenner (X/O, Branch 27): seared scallops ($16), anchovy flatbread ($10), and pan-fried sweetbreads ($14). “See those women in leopard print?” my pal Keer asked. “Definitely contenders.”

Hubbard Inn’s owners are no strangers to meat markets; without them, we wouldn’t have the lines-down-the-block spots English, LaSalle Power Co., and Angels & Mariachis. But mention those places now, and Mitria cringes. “This is more a reflection of our current taste,” he says. “We’re older, with families. We wanted our friends to come and talk in a place where the music will never be above conversation level.” And it’s true. We didn’t have to shout our drink orders or contend with a gallery of flat-screen TVs. But when we tried to check out the upstairs lounge, which we eventually accessed by sneaking into a service stairwell, we encountered a bouncer with an earpiece—and a line. I don’t think Hemingway would have stood for it.

Hubbard Inn
110 W. Hubbard St.;