Call it the people’s bar. “We don’t play favorites,” Chris Barish, the 34-year-old owner of Martini Park (151 W. Erie St.), says of the first-come, first-served door policy at his new River North nightlife destination, the second in a chain that started in Plano, Texas (Denver and San Francisco are next). It’s a nice break from the über-VIP trend we’ve seen around town lately. And at 8,300 square feet, Martini Park pretty much has room for everyone.
The monolith of a martini lounge, designed by Jeffrey Beers of Japonais fame, hosts live music six nights a week from 8 to midnight, which sets an upbeat vibe but tends to make intimate conversation impossible; Barish knows he may have to tweak things here and there. “We want to create the greatest cocktail party,” he says. As one of the principals in New York’s hugely popular Marquee and a former owner of Light at the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas, he’s got the cred. Plus, his dad is Keith Barish, a movie producer who created the Planet Hollywood concept—which helps explain Martini Park’s sensory overload approach. Barish fils touts the spot as a “playground for grownups”—an accurate description, since the crowd skews a bit older than your average River North hormone-fest.
Filling out the space: three big bars, sidewalk seating, VIP booths for big groups, high-top tables for smaller ones, and plenty of room to shake it in front of the bands. If you’re meeting people, finding them may be a challenge, but you’ll likely get sidetracked by the pickup scene anyway. And if the crowd doesn’t distract you, the drinks will. Many of the 20-plus varieties on the martini list ($10 to $12 each) require fresh purées. Staffers spend a full day prepping the concoctions before the night shift comes on; for the cucumber martini, Spanish cucumbers get peeled, juiced, seeded, and strained early in the day, then mixed with Skyy Melon and simple syrup one drink at a time. Hey, you can’t put a time limit on fun.
Photography: Chris Guillen
But where’s the accent?
River North is so saturated with nightlife options these days, how’s a person to choose? Joining the fray is English (444 N. LaSalle St.), a new bar from the Eat Well, Drink Better folks (Grand Central, Central, Bar Celona, Union Park) that’s been packing them in since mid-July.
Despite the name, there’s not much of an air of the isles about this place; the bar most closely resembles a three-story Rockit. Climbing up is a bit of a chore, but scenesters have been congregating at the third-floor pool tables and booths. Expect a neighborhood crowd on weeknights, business types for weekday lunch, and a mix of neighborhoodies and cabbers-in on weekends.
A couple of points in English’s favor: There’s no cover and—echoing Martini Park’s bucking of one seriously overplayed trend—no such thing as a VIP. “There’s no bottle service or even bottled water,” says marketing director David Mitria. With this bar for the everyman comes a line for everyone, so plan to arrive by 11 p.m. on weekends if you don’t want to get stuck standing outside.