Bar Novo
Bar Novo in the Renaissance

A friend of mine works in the NBC Tower, close to the heart of the downtown bustle, but she’s always complaining about the lack of places to go for a drink with colleagues. Enough whining. When I heard about two bars opening near her office, I wasted no time in corralling her for a happy-hour tour.

First stop: Sweetwater Tavern and Grille, in the old Bennigan’s space on Michigan Avenue. Brought to life by the guys behind Wicker Park’s The Boundary, Sweetwater has a similar masculine look: polished tables, lots of gray flagstone, and enough TVs to put Circuit City back in business. Gazing out the window is more my thing—and there’s excellent people-watching via the floor-to-ceiling glass surrounding the bar—but if you’re trying to keep tabs on a game while nodding along to everything your boss says, this is the place. Of the 70 beers on the menu, the bartender suggested Unibroue’s Trois Pistoles ($8 a bottle) and an order of bacon-wrapped shrimp ($12.95), which we devoured while eyeing the crowd: suits clinking glasses in oversized booths, youngish strangers getting to know one another at communal tables, and a few out-of-towners in sweatshirts and caps. Still, something about Sweetwater feels more hometown than touristy. “The clientele is built-in,” says co-owner Jason Akemann. “More than 5,000 people [work] in this building alone.”


Intent on seeing how Sweetwater stacked up, we headed three blocks west to Bar Novo on Wacker Drive, a 5,000-square-foot product of the Renaissance Chicago Hotel’s $1.8-million renovation. In a word: huge—from the looming chandelier to the endless seating. As we sank onto an empty couch, I worried we’d be so hidden no server would ever find us. (I later asked the hotel’s director of restaurants, Matt Ochse, where all the space came from. “Can you believe it?” he replied. “The old bar was about ten seats, and the rest was just wasted lobby.”) My fears were allayed when a waiter arrived to jot down our order, then returned in no time with two elaborate cocktails. I’d go back for the Bourbon County Pears (bourbon, pear liqueur, and lemon juice; $10).

Despite Ochse’s hope that Bar Novo will be seen as a “bar in a hotel, not a hotel bar,” it was hard to forget we were kicking back in a Marriott, a stone’s throw from the offices of Leo Burnett, Accenture, and United Airlines. Business travelers drinking solo lined the bar, post-meeting jeans and tennis shoes on display. Overall, Novo left me a little cold. And yet, not as cold as shivering in line across the street, waiting to get into the Roof at The Wit. In nightlife, as in business, a solid plan B is never a bad thing.

225 N. Michigan Ave.;

Renaissance Chicago Hotel, 1 W. Wacker Dr.;


Photography: Chris Guillen