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Charcoal Bar

Critics' pick
1/7
Photograph: Martha Williams

The Gold Price is available at Charcoal Bar.

2/7
Photograph: Martha Williams
Charcoal bar
3/7
Photograph: Martha Williams
Michael Simon cutting down ice cubes at Charcoal bar.
4/7
Photograph: Martha Williams
Charcoal bar
5/7
Photograph: Martha Williams
Charcoal bar
6/7
Photograph: Martha Williams
Charcoal bar
7/7
Photograph: Martha Williams
Charcoal bar
River North

Bar review by Amy Cavanaugh

Tucked beneath Sumi Robata Bar is an 11-seat bar that one of my boozing companions called “an Office you can actually get into.” He wasn’t exaggerating. Charcoal Bar, which opened last July under bartender Mathew “Choo” Lipsky and reopened under Michael Simon (Carriage House, Qui in Austin) on Valentine’s Day, is so good I’ve already been three times. On no visit were there ever more than four people outside my party, so getting seats has never been a problem, unlike under Lipsky. Also unlike Lipsky, Simon has a ton of personality, so what was once a quiet, sometimes awkward bar has become a lot more fun.

Gene Kato’s exceptional Sumi is known for its simple, elegant Japanese dishes, and Simon applies the same philosophies to his cocktails, which range from $14-$20. The current list has five options, all with Game of Thrones names, like the plum-laced Mother of Dragons, made with Japanese whiskey, shochu and demerara sugar fortified with togarashi, mirin and other ingredients. While Simon is using complex ingredients, every drink was balanced and thoughtful. He’ll also make you whatever you want to drink for $18, including an absolutely killer Negroni. 

You can order almost anything off Sumi’s menu to be delivered downstairs (the exception being the ishiyaki, meat cooked on a hot stone, which would smoke out the place). “I’ve had three of the tofu dishes tonight,” a man next to me at the bar boasted when he saw my friends and I sharing one. Salty pieces of fried jidori chicken are an ideal drinking snack, and if the chicken tail is available, get it, because the skewer of fatty little pieces is delicious.

Charcoal Bar is entirely a one-man show, and Simon takes orders, makes drinks, hand-carves the ice and serves, so it may take 20 minutes for your drink to arrive. Given the price and timing, this is not the kind of bar where you’re going to have more than two drinks, but it is the kind of bar where you’re going to have one or two and leave totally happy.

Update: Danielle Pizzutillo (Embeya) took over the bar in June 2014. Read our interview with her.

Venue name: Charcoal Bar
Address: 702 N Wells St
Chicago

Cross street: at Huron St
Venue phone: 312-988-7864
Website: http://sumirobatabar.com
Opening hours: Mon–Wed 5pm–11pm; Thu–Sat 5pm–midnight
Transport: El stop: Brown, Purple (rush hrs) to Chicago. Bus: 37, 156.
Price: Average cocktail: $15
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