Dance music pulsates through Red Velvet Lounge as party-goers indulge in late-night eats and specialty bar drinks amid a spacious nightclub. Bartenders pours out beverages from a fully stocked bar as guest saunter to the hardwood dance floor illuminated by the sporadic flickers of a colorful lights. Themed parties for Halloween and New Year’s Eve add variety to weekends, and Friday and Saturday nights introduce crowds to special-guest DJs and their finger-puppet entourages. Bites from the Lounge’s Italian-inspired menu fuel evening adventurers, with options including gorgonzola chips, Sicilian tilapia, and lemon-mascarpone torte.
It’s a difficult task to pull off—taking a hodgepodge of recycled odds and ends and creating something entirely new. Simone’s Bar, however, has proven up to the challenge. An architectural potpourri of artifacts salvaged from around the city, the Pilsen bar is best known for the retired pinball machines that line its walls. These ancient tables lend a retro vibe to the bar area, where microbrews and cocktails take the place of pins on a recycled bowling lane. Other idiosyncratic elements include chemistry tables from nearby Westinghouse High School, conveyer belts from Chicago’s Fanny May Candies factory, and a chandelier molded from bicycle chains and rocking chairs. Combined with the solar panels on the rooftop, these repurposed knickknacks have earned Simone’s status as a three-star certified green restaurant. Simone’s décor may come from all corners of the city, but its food is influenced more by the bar’s immediate surroundings. Empanadas and a grilled cheese sandwich with Chihuahua cheese nod to Pilsen’s proud Mexican heritage, as do burgers topped with jalapenos and guacamole. The drink menu also has a local slant, highlighting Chicago brews and craft cocktails that would feel right at home in one of the galleries on nearby Halsted Street.
Though he relies primarily on local ingredients when crafting his Vietnamese cuisine, executive chef Kay Bui structures his menu around a principle that may seem foreign to American diners. He serves small plates in the context of a communal meal, as is common practice in Vietnam. Together, guests can explore the exotic tastes of charbroiled pork wrapped in rice paper, sautéed asparagus doused in a spicy brown sauce, or shrimp and crabmeat stir-fried with vermicelli noodles and mixed vegetables. Bartenders complement the kitchen’s output with house-infused spirits and an extensive wine list that highlights organic and biodynamic reds and whites. At Sawtooth Restaurant, meals unfold in one of three places: a spacious dining room notable for its earthy tones and clean lines, a lounge with custom booths and modular box tables, or a garden patio surrounded by exposed brick and patrolled by Indochinese tigers.
Legend has it that on December 5, 1933—the day that Prohibition ended—the Zebra Lounge showed Chicago its stripes for the first time. Fittingly, one must pass under the Canterbury Courts’ black-and-white awning to get to this intimate piano bar, where mustard and mauve-painted walls give way to a hung zebra pelt, framed pictures, and zebra-striped lamps. Even the bartenders match the décor, since they often sport black pants and white socks as they sling drinks and play armchair therapist. In-the-know patrons arrive early to sink into leather booths as pianists tap out songs by Frank Sinatra and Neil Diamond, among others. Later on in the night, the cozy, pint-sized joint fills up with a diverse crowd that leaves the pretension at the door and ranges from suit-sporting old-timers to reveling college students. From behind the mirror-lined bar, the staff pours martinis, fills wooden bowls with zesty snack mix, and turns away predatory lions lured by the bar’s sign. Zebra Lounge is many things; as much a chameleon as it is a zebra. It’s a hideaway to those that want it to be one, and place to have great conversation for those looking for one.
To many, the idea of French cuisine inspires images of stuffy maître 'ds and three-figure bottles of burgundy. Those people might be surprised to stumble upon Maude's Liquor Bar, which Brendan Sodikoff—the gastronomic mastermind behind Gilt Bar—designed to embody "a dive bar in Paris," according to Chicago Magazine. In its second floor digs, mismatched chandeliers cast a low glow over salvaged subway tiles and exposed brick walls as diners savor a contemporary French-American menu that its creators describe as “straightforward and sexy with playful twinges.” Though the food is more than worth the wait on weekend nights, the drink list is where Maude’s truly shines. Classic cocktails, such as the Sazerac and the St. Germain Fizz, mingle with unique libations such as the Smash, a drink brimming with mint leaves, citrus wedges, and a choice of spirits ranging from whiskey to chartreuse. Of course, no French dive would be complete without a wine selection, and Maude's list of about 30 reds, whites, and champagnes doesn't disappoint.
What happens when an Australian vacationer in Chicago intends to stay for three weeks, but accidentally befriends a chef and goes into business with him? The answer is Bar Forza. The aforementioned chef, Mario Giuseppe Mentesana, comes fresh from the kitchens of two five-star restaurants in Florence, drawing on South Italian tradition to craft authentic red sauces with San Marzano tomatoes. Chef Mentesana uses these sauces on traditional pastas and gourmet pizzas, including the rigatoni ballanti with Sicilian meatballs and the salsiccia e cipolle pie with homemade spicy Italian sausage. He also crafts burgers and paninis to satisfy those who like their handheld fare between bread slices.
As Chef Mentesana works his magic in the kitchen, bartenders shake martinis, pour on-draft craft beer, and effortlessly catch full glasses of wine as they periodically drop from the dining room's high, tin ceiling. Like the Bar Forza team, these wines come from across the world, hailing from vineyards in Italy, Australia, South America, New Zealand, and the U.S..