Inside Highball Lounge

I’ve heard a lot of buzz about Highball Lounge, which opened the week I was out of town for Thanksgiving. Judging by the photos taken by our Scene on the Scene photographer last Saturday, it has become an overnight hit.

Almost too much of a hit. “It was a madhouse—we weren’t expecting it,” our cocktail waitress said after I asked her about Saturday’s crowd during a visit on a much quieter visit on Tuesday night. She shrugged affably, plopping down on a nearby chair to chat and take our order. “We’re new. So we’ll work out some kinks, right?”

Highball owner Perry Fotopoulos, who opened his Tasting Room wine bar in the West Loop in 2000, told me in an e-mail yesterday that the lounge had ambitiously accepted three party reservations between 10:30 and 11 p.m. on Saturday, resulting in 70 thirsty revelers all showing up at the same time. From here on out, the second-floor space with its retro 1950s/1960s vibe will be putting “all our focus on the highballs,” Fotopoulos says. “That’s who we are, and that’s what we do best.”

According to Fotopoulos, Highball is supposed to be a more relaxed, conversation-friendly kind of place, and it certainly was on Tuesday. Only a sprinkling of patrons graced the bar, and we easily snagged the best vintage sofa arrangement next to the floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking Clark Street and neighbor ZED 451.

Our waitress, a New York transplant who told us she also works at Maria’s Packaged Goods in Bridgeport, waited patiently while we perused the menu of classic highball cocktails (no food served here yet, though plans for small bites are in the works). I really, really wanted to try the Seelbach—Maker’s Mark mixed with Combier, two kinds of bitters, and Champagne for $17—a drink that hails from a historic hotel in Louisville, my hometown. But in an effort to keep seasonal spending in check, I settled on the Sophia & Marcello (a “contemporary highball” recipe by mixologist Adam Seger that’s a blend of Hum Botanical and Campari topped with Gosling’s ginger beer) for a more budget-friendly $8. The drink was nicely balanced and seemed mixed with care, but I should keep in mind that I don’t really like the taste of ginger beer.

Anyone remember the movie Blast From the Past? It’s about a guy (Brendan Fraser) whose parents raise him in a 1960s fallout shelter, and 35 years later, when he ventures above ground, he falls in love with Alicia Silverstone. That’s what I kept thinking about—a kitschy take on the era, rather than a sleeker, Mad Men version—as we lounged at Highball among its retro coffee tables and silver starburst clocks. The music was good, the service was friendly, and I was glad we weren’t actually in a bomb shelter. But the row of paintings along the south wall, which looked like bad copies of Jackson Pollocks and Ellsworth Kellys, irked me. I’m wary of themes taken too far, and 1960s fatigue was already starting to set in.

In my e-mail to Fotopoulos, I tried to phrase it diplomatically: “Who made the paintings, and what’s the story there?”

Zac Franzoni is a prolific abstract and surreal Chicago painter,” Fotopoulos wrote back. “He gets Highball culture, and when we asked for some art that a cool cat in the early 1960s would have on the walls of his bachelor pad, Franzon asked, ‘Like an art student’s stab at Pollock or Picasso?’”

Oh, so the art is supposed to be bad. My irony meter must be way off. I blame the holidays.