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Chicago’s latest corner tavern remake is quintessentially cozy and inviting, with stirred cocktails by the ounce and inventive drinking food.
Enterprising barchitects Wade McElroy and Jeff Donahue (Sportsman’s Club, Estereo) took another shot at reviving the beloved Orbit Room space in Avondale—this time with much success. Ludlow Liquors carves out a distinct identity for itself through a roster of spirit-forward cocktails available by the ounce plus greasy drinking food that artfully blends Midwestern nostalgia with Filipino tradition.
Entering the dim, orange-cast tavern while the Clash crooned reggae-lite punk over the speakers evoked the familiar, snug embrace of a neighborhood dive (though, for the record, it’s far cleaner and lacks the typical old-bar musk). Despite the fact that the doors opened for service just an hour earlier, the 17-seat bartop was totally occupied. My husband and I slid into one of the toffee-hued leather booths lining the wall opposite the bar to peruse the menu.
Most of the cocktails here are available as one-, two- or three-ounce pours, allowing guests to sip sample-sized portions of the boozy offerings. At first, I dismissed the idea as far too Brooklyn for our big-shouldered city. Who’d opt to go small on a drink like the Summit—a light, bright and nutty whiskey martini with Suntory Toki, fino sherry and persimmon liqueur? Or the charming absinthe-washed Sportsman, with caramel-scented bourbon, Italian rhubarb amaro and a double dose of bitters?
But as I neared the bottom of my first coupe, the appeal of sampling an ounce or two of the Delicious #7—a botanically inclined mescal and benedictine sipper warmed by mole bitters—grew exponentially. Or better yet a glass of ruby-hued, lightly fizzy lambrusco, which you’ll find this wino sipping all day this summer in the sprawling backyard beer garden (sorry, rosé).
Diminutive options aside, your best bet for balancing out the liquor is to sample a few of the bar’s quirky eats from Old Habits, the standalone, onsite enterprise from Nick Jirasek. Veggie “bolognese” tinged with peppery dried basil and oregano recalls the Pregos and Ragus of many a suburban childhood. Smoky, drippings-glazed rib tips homage the city’s barbecue signature. Craggy wontons brim with everything-bagel–flavored cream cheese and sweet crabmeat in a genius mashup dubbed crab “dragoon.”
Jirasek beautifully weaves in influences of his own Filipino-American upbringing, most notably through an emphatic use of vinegar—which also provides welcomed relief for this brackish drinking food. Shatteringly crisp Filipino egg rolls pack a greasy mix of pork, beef, fish sauce and Spam. As we hastily dunked them in toasty, garlicky fermented chili sauce, I had no words beyond the somewhat inelegant phrase: “They should bottle that shit.”
The second condiment, a mildly funky soy-dashi vinegar, came in handy a few minutes later, when a hulking pot roast “sammitch” arrived—a mouth-coatingly rich combo of beef shoulder and cheek meat piled high with frizzled onions on buttery toast. A thorough dousing of the bracing liquid delivered a needed jolt to our palates where the benign side of kimchi slaw could not.
Dragging slender, crisp fries through malted vanilla gelato briefly summoned us back to late summer nights in the suburban Wendy’s parking lot, dunking fries into our Frostys off the back of a sun-bleached Dodge Neon.
“Look: we get a little dessert too,” my husband said, unofficially proclaiming the meal’s end with a single spoonful of the melted ice cream. He opted for throwback Chicago with his final drink order, too—Old Style on draught.
Atmosphere: This dressed-down remake of the bygone Orbit Room beckons with snug tavern vibes, spirit-centric sips and nostalgic drunk food that will no doubt keep you drinking.
What to eat: Old Habits slings salty throwback bar fare at its best alongside addictively bracing condiments. Think Filipino egg rolls with pork, beef and spam; succulent smoky rib tips; and vinegary buffalo cauliflower with dill-infused ranch dip.
What to drink: Martini lovers may yet become whiskey drinkers with the nutty Japanese whiskey- and sherry-based Summit, while the refreshing whiskey sour sets the new standard for a classic cocktail. Wine drinkers, take note: Lambrusco is Italy’s mid-sweet, fizzy red answer to rosé (which Ludlow bartenders will also stir into quenching Aperol spritz remakes all summer).
Where to sit: Wind down after a long day at the well-spaced bar, where you’re also guaranteed the fastest service (bar service only here). Come summer, bring a crowd and nab a picnic table in the sprawling back beer garden.
Maggie Hennessy is the restaurant and bar critic for Time Out Chicago. She likes (real) dive bars and bread with every meal. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @edible_words.
2959 N California Ave
|Opening hours:||Daily at 5pm|
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