When one thinks of Wrigleyville, it’s likely that the first thoughts that result are not “craft cocktails” or “vintage spirits”–more like cheap beer and game day shenanigans. But Mordecai (3632 N. Clark, Lakeview), the new cocktail bar and restaurant coming to the Hotel Zachary this week, aims to change that in a big way.
“Wrigleyville has a certain perception that, these days, is not totally accurate,” says chef/owner Matthias Merges, who is also the man behind Billy Sunday and A10. “The perception is of those 22-year-olds in dive-y bars. But more and more, there is a contingent of people who live in this area who are more demanding. I think we’re responding to that need.”
Mordecai is a glittering two-story space, with more than 100 seats and a secluded upstairs bar. The original inspiration was Billy Sunday, a bar that does complex, spirit-forward cocktails with a hefty dose of Chicago history and a huge collection of vintage spirits. “[The developers] loved the story behind Billy Sunday, and how we curated that story and history, and we wand to do the same thing here, which is how we came up with Mordecai,” said Merges. The name refers to famous Cubs pitcher Mordecai Brown, who helped the Cubs win two World Series and stood up to the mob when asked to throw a big game. (He was also known by the nickname Three Finger, as he lost a finger in a childhood accident and suffered from paralysis in another finger on his pitching hand.)
The food, from chef Jared Wentworth (formerly of Longman & Eagle, Dusek’s, and Prairie School) focuses on recognizable dishes with a few elevated twists. After all, it’s still next to a baseball stadium. There are takes on fish and chips, roast chicken, and grilled hanger steak , but also a few surprises, like a beet tartare with celery root and a Middle Eastern-inspired grilled octopus with chickpeas, ramps, and harissa.
Merges called the approach to the menu at Mordecai his “70/30” rule. “When you come in and sit down and look at the menu, the terms are recognizable, the preps are recognizable, and then we give you 30 percent of things that are not," he says. "It’s those things that make something memorable.”
The cocktail program is a huge focus, but so is the spirits list. Any Billy Sunday fan knows that that bar has a massive menu of vintage amaro kept in a leather-bound book; at Mordecai, the focus is bourbon and scotch. Especially at the smaller upstairs bar, guests will find old bottles that won’t be encountered anywhere else, including bourbon going back to the 1930s.
It’s going to be an interesting challenge running a restaurant operating at this high a level when 40,000 people crowd into the neighborhood, but Merges is already anticipating; they’re working on a game day menu that’s a little easier to execute. And they hope to create a spot that’s a destination even when the Cubs aren’t at home.