Some people love a long line outside a bar. To them, a line means that whatever is inside must be worth waiting for. Me? When I see a line, I envision shoulder-to-shoulder madness, shouted conversations, sweaty bodies, and slow service. So when Peter Gugni, the mixologist and general manager of The Bedford in Wicker Park (1612 W. Division St.), told me the new subterranean bar had been drawing lines most weekend nights, I opted to check out the place on a Thursday.
It was a solid decision. At nine on a breezy evening, our party of three walked straight through The Bedford’s inconspicuous wooden door and down into its depths, formerly the basement of the Home Bank and Trust Company. Bits and pieces of the original 1920s bank—safety deposit boxes, teller gates, a one-ton vault door—have been incorporated into the décor, sometimes because they were too heavy to move and sometimes because they looked cool. (The relics serve as a smart nod to the building’s past; I just wish they weren’t overpowered by some of the more modern elements, like an odd assortment of light fixtures: “I’ve seen that one at my nail salon,” my friend said of a chandelier.)
We would have liked to sit on one of the comfy-looking couches in the vault, but we wanted to order dinner, and, for now, food is served in the main lounge and the dining room only—to protect the furniture, Gugni later explained. Instead, we perched on green leather chairs at a table near the bar and eyed the crowd, a surprisingly unpretentious bunch for a place that often has a wait. I spied 30-something neighborhood types at the bar, a family (grandparents included) in the dining room, a group of postcollege girlfriends in a large booth, and an acquaintance, who left her blind date cooling his heels while she came over to say hello.
I ordered a Cucumber Cooler (gin, Aperol, lime juice, simple syrup, and muddled cucumber; $9) from the very short cocktail list (only four options for now, more to come later), while my date, who has spent time in Peru and sipped his fair share of the grape-flavored brandy called pisco, pounced on the spicy Bedford Bramble (Campo de Encanto pisco, lemon juice, blackberries, five-spice powder, and ginger beer; $9). Despite the place exuding a vibe that is much more bar than restaurant, the waitress paced our food order nicely (hanger steak, $14; gnocchi with pea-tendril pesto, $18; macaroni gratin, $10) and switched out the silverware between each course.
As downbeat tracks by Hot Chip, the xx, and Beck played in the background, our group’s conversation turned to the sheer size of that circular vault door: Nothing at Fort Knox could compete. “What in the world did anyone ever need to lock up that badly?” I wondered. Just then, my friend spotted an ex bounding down the stairs in the direction of the vault. “That!” she said. “Lock it up.”
Once The Bedford attends to a few kinks, it will have my vote locked up, too. On weeknights, at least.
Photograph: Chris Guillen