Vintage books, rich wood, deep leather chairs, soft lighting, and a whole lot of Scotch.
No, I’m not describing some English country-house fantasy. These are a few of the things you’ll find at the Lounge at Walton Street (912 N. State Street) when this Gold Coast bar opens in mid-September. It’s the cozy counterpart to the forthcoming Walton Street Kitchen & Bar, an upscale American restaurant owned by Ryan O’Donnell (Coda di Volpe, Gemini) and his wife, Anna O’Donnell.
Located below this main dining area, the Lounge is super intimate, with just 18 seats. It’s helmed by beverage director John Douglass, who will stock it with some limited-edition and vintage spirits you can’t get elsewhere. Douglass has spent time at Fat Rice, Paramount Room, and Table, Donkey, and Stick, among other restaurants. While he admits that he isn’t a Scotch connoisseur, he hopes the Lounge will become a premier spot for Scotch drinkers in the city — not because its menu will provide them with the city’s longest list, but because, he says, “We’re going to have one of Chicago’s most thoughtful Scotch collections.”
That means a few different things. First, the menu isn’t arranged regionally, since Douglass thinks that doesn’t actually make a lot of sense. Instead, he’s organized everything by flavor profiles, like fruity and spicy, or malty and dry. Each of those sections will be grounded in an example to give guests a good anchor point, but then the list will branch out into limited bottles you can only find there. Douglass’ goal is to get guests to go beyond familiar comforts and try new drinks that are similar to those they already love. The same approach applies to the large bourbon menu.
The Lounge isn’t just a whiskey bar, though. There’s a build-your-own-martini program, where guests choose their spirit and one of nine different styles of martinis. You can even order a full pitcher of martinis, served in vintage crystal and with a garnish board laden with goodies like onions, olives, citrus, and caperberries.
The main menu features 16 cocktails, including (somewhat surprisingly) a Cosmo. The offerings reflect Douglass’ philosophy that he wants to serve drinks that people in the neighborhood want to order (he recalls visiting the nearby Somerset and seeing a lot of Cosmopolitans crossing the bar). “I don’t really care for the attitude of Well I worked hard on this menu and this guest is ordering a vodka soda or a Cosmo, how awful,” says Douglass. “If you’re running a bar in a place where people want Cosmos, make the best one you can make.”
There are also some secrets in store here for the careful observer. Menus are designed to look like vintage books and will be pulled off shelves, rather than presented to customers. If you look at those shelves, you might find a hidden message or two on the spines of these facsimiles, or spot compartments disguised to blend in with the walls.
The Lounge will also offer a few great bargains. Visit between any Sunday and Thursday, and ask about its “Break Even Bottle” — a bottle of vintage spirit poured, at cost, by the ounce. As Douglass says, “Good whiskey is meant to be drunk with friends, not sit on the shelf and collect dust.”