Inside The Violet Hour

Intoxicologist Toby Maloney

It’s a tall order: “We’re trying  to be the best cocktail lounge in the U.S.,” restaurant and nightlife mogul Terry Alexander (Danny’s Tavern, Sonotheque, Mia Francesca) says of his new venture, The Violet Hour (1520 N. Damen Ave.). Housed in Alexander’s now-shuttered Wicker Park tapas spot del Toro, and named for a line from T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, the ultra-luxe lounge focuses on cocktails and comfortable sophistication. As for whether it lives up to its lofty goal, we’ll get to that.

Inside, dramatic periwinkle curtains welcome patrons (as does a sign nixing smoking and cell phones); more of the same curtains separate each of the bar’s three rooms, which house matching periwinkle furniture. Crystal chandeliers dangle from the ceiling, and tiger-wood floors lend a striking contrast to the robin’s-egg-blue walls, finished with crown molding. “We ripped everything out, starting with the walls,” Alexander says.

It’s a striking change, but it’s the cocktail list that really grabbed us, courtesy of resident “intoxicologist” Toby Maloney, who started out as an oyster shucker at Alexander’s Soul Kitchen (now Francesca’s Forno). “There isn’t a bar staff like this anywhere,” Alexander says. It takes two hours just to prep the bar each day, and the staff underwent rigorous training—10 a.m. to 3 a.m. daily for two and a half weeks—to perfect the craft of cocktailing. The results are miniature works of art—and art can’t be rushed. Each drink costs $11 and takes about two to three minutes to make (the jury’s out on whether the hip, dialed-in crowd will find the wait too long). On a recent visit, we tried the Southside, a mix of Tanqueray, lime, angostura bitters, and a “spank” of mint—bartender Brad literally slapped the mint between his hands to release its essential oils. While it came out tasting a little like a mojito, we loved the artful presentation.

As for that “best in the U.S.” braggadocio, Alexander certainly gets points for confidence. And he’s got the chops to make a go of it—but then again, del Toro lasted just 16 months. Only time will tell for The Violet Hour; in the meantime, check out our picks for this year’s best new bars.

Photography: Chris Guillen