Photography: Chris Guillen

The lines form inside the James Hotel’s J Bar.

The Inn Bar
It finally happened. Chicago got a hotel bar worth going out of your way for. When the modern and boutique James Hotel opened in March, it received more buzz for the dry-aged steaks served at its restaurant-New York transplant David Burke’s Primehouse-than for its adjacent high-end cocktail lounge, J Bar (616 N. Rush St.), which itself serves one of the best mojitos I’ve tasted in this city. Perhaps the smartest decision by J Bar’s management was to give the bar its own easy-to-miss entrance just a stone’s throw from the restaurant’s revolving doors. And management didn’t do much to promote the place-instead, letting word spread the old-fashioned way.

“This may be the first place in Chicago that has the panache and style of a New York lounge without the New York attitude,” says Tom Kane, 30, a Lehman Brothers private investment manager and former club promoter who is hanging out there one night. “I like the sophisticated city crowd and the general vibe.” On three consecutive visits, I saw no unnecessary lines outside, and-get this!-the staff actually seemed happy to have us. Add a good-looking crowd lounging on leather banquettes in a low-lit environment with familiar lounge music-as it got later, dance tunes complemented conversation rather than controlling it. We also love the risqué video loops on the flat-screen TVs, and the modular leather cube seating. (Bottle service, while offered, is not strictly enforced.)

Next up, according to operations director and partner Lana Trevisan, is the exclusive James Club, an invitation-only lounge on the second floor of the hotel, expected to open this year. It will offer its own perks and will likely be a hangout for visiting Hollywood types and celebs. Plans are still tentative and hotel management has not yet decided whether to charge a membership fee.



Meat and greet: For a steak house, Avenue M abounds with lounge space.

Dialing M
Avenue M (695 N. Milwaukee Ave.), which opened in April, took over the space formerly occupied by Fahrenheit and the Como Inn, but you wouldn’t really know it. A major design overhaul turned it into a magnificent and bold 10,000-square-foot contemporary American steak house, boasting 26-foot ceilings, which has, by my count, six distinct areas for hanging out: bars upstairs and downstairs, a 2,000-square-foot patio, a separate dining room, and two overhanging balconies. Since owners Dan Schwab, John Merlo, Lew Langer, and Dan Schneider all spent years running successful local nightlife haunts (Bacchus, Green Room, Circus), they’ve made Avenue M both restaurant and lounge, with a separate entrance on Milwaukee that leads straight up to the bar area so as not to disturb the more serious diners downstairs. And the dining is serious: steaks, fish, fresh-made pastas, salads, and desserts. But we especially like that we can order from the bar menu, which has ten items on it for $10 each, any place and any time.

Celebrity Beat
Chaka Khan admits she’s fashion challenged. When I ran into the wild-haired songstress and South Side native at a Recording Academy banquet honoring her, I asked her to describe her sense of style. “Ha, I have none!” she said, belting out a hearty laugh. . . . After Coldplay’s concert at the United Center, I crashed their invite-only affair downstairs at Reserve, where frontman Chris Martin played Ms. Pacman while his bandmates partied hard until the wee hours. They ate food by the local caterer Jordan’s Food of Distinction, played Golden Tee, foosball, and blackjack, and mingled with friends.