Walk through an alley to an old freight elevator, let it transport you beneath the bustling streets of Chicago, and emerge into a hidden, mezcal-scented space that marries industrial chic elements with decor inspired by Mexico City. This is Bar Sótano (443 N. Clark St., River North), the latest bar and restaurant from Rick Bayless and his team that is slated to open on November 15.
Translated from Spanish, “sótano” means “basement” — which is the word Bayless used to refer to the project during its development. The chef worked with his daughter, Lanie, to get it off the ground; she also serves as Bar Sótano’s beverage director.
Located underneath Frontera Grill in what was formerly a warehouse for the Frontera Foods product line, the space has original, late 19th-century touches like raw stone walls. Given these details and the unconventional mode of entry, the Bayless team figured that a speakeasy would perfectly fit the setting.
“We want to transport you to a different world,” says Lanie, adding that she and her father thought they “could capitalize on this love of mezcal and agave spirits that is happening right now.”
The bar doesn’t serve only mezcal, but its focus is on agave spirits like mezcal, tequila, and sotol. Lanie is excited about the possibility to educate Chicago about these spirits, especially those who might not be as familiar with smoky, delicious mezcal. According to a press release, Bar Sótano will have one of the largest selections of mezcals in the nation. This includes its own house special. The Bayless team made this spirit in collaboration with the Oaxaca-based family business Banhez Mezcal, which they visited to pick out a particular blend.
The speakeasy will also offer unique, innovative cocktails. Take the house special, the Bar Sótano — a combination of the house mezcal, sugar cane juice (made fresh on a press), chartreuse, citrus, and hoja santa (a Mexican aromatic herb). Other cocktails have culinary roots. One notable example: the Taco al Pastor, made with leftover bits from tacos al pastor served next door at Xoco. These remnants are gathered and used to fat-wash mezcal; that flavored spirit is then combined with all the elements of the taco, including caramelized pineapple, lime, and cilantro. “This is the most fun I’ve ever had designing cocktails,” says Lanie.
The food at Bar Sótano is as exciting as its drinks,with a menu by chef Rishi Manoj Kumar (formerly of Topolobampo). Lanie describes Kumar’s take on paella as a “show-stopper,” made with mussels and the spices found in chorizo. Diners can also choose from a full line of charcutería and bar snacks.
Like Frontera Grill, Bar Sótano will take a limited number of reservations, although most of the restaurant will still be open for walk-ins. Don’t worry about jostling fellow guests for drinks; all guests will be seated, and capacity will be capped at 50.
According to Lanie, craft cocktails hit Mexico slightly later than they did the United States, but the trend is starting to pick up now. She and her father wanted to bring a little bit of that scene to Chicago. “That’s exactly what we always strive to do — bring the love and culture of Mexico into what we’re doing here,” she says.