You might not have realized two really exciting watering holes that are right in the heart of the Loop. Both are housed in the Kimpton Gray Hotel (122 W, Monroe St.): Vol. 39 — a law library-themed bar with an entire menu dedicated to Old Fashioneds) — and Boleo — a year-round rooftop restaurant serving South American fare. They’ve been fairly popular since opening in 2016 but are about to kick their drink programs up a notch with the entry of a new bar manager.
Josh Relkin has honed his skills at a lot of places that will be familiar to any local cocktail geek. He had his first bartending gig at Sable and did time at The Sixth and Proxi; he also cites drinking at The Violet Hour as the beginning of his cocktail enlightenment. Oh, and he’s a trained chef who’s worked at Alinea.
Relkin is familiar with his new territory. He recalls visiting Vol. 39 to meet his wife, who works at Boleo, after work. But because of the downtown location, Relkin thinks that both bars are easy to overlook. “For some reason, I never thought about Vol. 39,” he says, “and I looked around and realized, I forget how awesome this place is.” Given their beauty and quality — established, in large part, by his predecessor, Jessica Lambert — he thinks they should be much closer to the top of people’s lists.
Changes are coming, and they should delight rather than disappoint regulars. At Boleo, the beverage offerings are going to align much more closely than before with the South American cuisine offered by Chef Cory Morris. The wine program, for instance, will be rooted in that continent. “Why do you have three California Chardonnays at the Argentinean restaurant?” Relkin says. Similarly, he adds: “I don’t want to be eating ceviche and drinking a Chicago IPA.” The new head honcho also plans to bring in a lot more imported and South American beers so that guests can enjoy a more diverse range of the region's alcohol.
On the cocktail side, expect to taste drinks with a culinary bent. Relkin and Morris have been collaborating to incorporate ingredients from the kitchen into the drink program. “Chef uses plantains like crazy — let’s use that in the cocktails; this spice blend for your pork dish would go well in a drink — let’s play around with that,” Relkin says. “The biggest change you’re gonna see … Cocktails that you can find at almost any bar? Tasty, well done drinks that are generic? We’re getting rid of those.”
Down at Vol. 39, his plan is to focus on pristinely mixed cocktails and eliminate some existing items he thinks doesn’t fit, like a selection of highballs. “They’re good drinks, but if I’m walking into that bar, I want a cocktail,” says Relkin. “I want to sit there and see the bartender pick up five or six bottles and carefully measure everything. I don’t want him to put strawberries into a glass and pour tonic over it — that’s not exciting."
Relkin has been at the two bars for about five weeks, and customers can already see some changes in the menu. But there are still much bigger changes to come. “Early next year, you’ll see a big turnover,” Relkin says. “Then you’ll see Josh’s Vol. 39.”