The Reader says Chicago is "five years behind"; bartenders respond

Who needs restaurants when these bars are taking food so seriously?

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Lauren Viera, apparently not content to have the full force of PETA's anger unleashed on her after penning an essay on how "Vegetarianism is passé" in TOC earlier this month, is stirring it up once again, this time in the Chicago Reader. Her two-page spread, titled "Mother's Ruin," hit newsstands late last night: In the story, Viera uses the opening of a gin-focused bar, Scofflaw, in Logan Square, as a jumping off point for a variety of claims about the history and current state of Chicago drinking. 

Dubious claim #1: "[Scofflaw's opening] might narrow the embarrassing gap between [Chicago] and the competing bicoastal metropolises that, for various reasons, have always preceded us in just about everything on our plates and in our glasses."
Let's leave Scofflaw out of this (I am friends with one of the owners, Danny "Kill me now" Shapiro). And let's leave aside the troubling claim that "everything on our plates"—emphasis mine—is just a copy of something Keith McNally/Danny Meyer did five years ago. There's an "embarrassing gap" between Chicago's cocktail scene and that of the coasts? I reached out to a few of Chicago's finest barkeeps to see what they had to say about this.

Mike Ryan, the head bartender at Sable Kitchen & Bar and a Violet Hour alum, pointed out that Chicago is not "behind" New York; it's different from New York—and has its own advantages. "We are...going in a different direction," says Ryan. "Between Sable and The Barrelhouse Flat, we are showing that craft cocktails can be done on a massive scale, without pretension, in open bars. There are still the quiet, cozy temples to the cocktail, but people seem to enjoy having the option of being raucous around their drink. Yes, there are places in NYC where one can obtain a fancy cocktail in a loud environment...but one feels one is bothering the bartender with one's request for a fancy cocktail. (Not always, depends on the bartender.)"

Dubious claim #2: Even though Chicago bars just received as many nominations as New York ones in the inaugural Outstanding Bar Program category (each city nabbed two nominations; San Francisco had one) of the James Beard Awards, we're still behind New York because we don't have bars that serve one spirit exclusively. That's paraphrased. Here's how Viera puts it: "My logic went like this: If Scofflaw serves exclusively gin cocktails a la Madam Geneva [a gin-only bar in NYC], Chicago wins. If Scofflaw cops out and caters to the masses, we're doomed." 
Charles Joly, the head bartender at The Drawing Room, begs to differ. "I'd like to respectfully disagree with the idea that we are 'doomed,'" wrote Joly in an email, which he also posted on the Reader's website. "Chicago's bar scene has been steadily growing over the past five years and continues to do so. I'd much rather see thoughtful growth than a slew of kitschy bars pop up and dilute the scene." He also objects to the idea that bars here aren't specialized: "There are certainly programs here that are not 'everything to everyone.' Violet Hour, The Drawing Room, The Aviary and many others unapologetically open their doors every day to offer what I humbly think is a special product. Personally, I strive to give my guests whatever they're looking for. If a guest has a request, and I have the means to meet it on hand, so be it. If I don't believe in a particular spirit, beer etc, it won't be in the bar in the first place—so it's not an issue. To me, that is hospitality. That is a lack of pretension that makes me love the Midwest."

Ryan echoed Joly's sentiments. "Regarding the whole 'gin-centric' bar, 'tequila-centric' bar, etc," he wrote, "We aren't New York. Yes, we have New York to thank for our cocktail revolution, but Toby [Maloney, of the Violet Hour] just showed us the way. In NYC there's a much larger, more compressed populace, and bars are much, much smaller: That same insanely high rent means that the square footage of your bar is going to be restricted severely. There is no way a speakeasy the size of TVH could pay rent in NYC without doing standing or charging eighteen bucks a cocktail. We also have several bars that focus on select spirits, but being absolutely exclusive to one spirit? That's just inhospitable, and I for one don't see the [advantage] in that."

Dubious claim #3: "Therein lies the dilemma with Chicago's bar scene: It's too midwestern. Our bartenders must be everything to everyone."
"I couldn't be more proud to be part of the food and beverage industry in this city. I wouldn't have it any other way," says Joly. Can we all raise a tequila cocktail at a gin-focused Midwestern bar to that?


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