Millennials, myself included, have grown up on artisanal cocktails and craft beers, which has me thinking a lot about the evolution of the third place. What will the neighborhood tavern look like in 50 years? Where will future generations belly up on a Thursday night to shoot the shit over beer and shots of whiskey?
Chances are, it will look a lot like Neon Wilderness, the latest project from barman Brad Bolt in partnership with Heisler Hospitality’s Matt Eisler and Kevin Heisner. (The trio’s bygone Bar DeVille will reopen soonish, too, somewhere in West Town.) This snug, urban wood cabin—where beer only comes in cans and glassware is anything but precious—achieves the rare balance between neighborhood joint and cocktail bar. Bolt cleverly offsets his higher-end drink lineup with a solid spate of daily happy hour specials.
I sunk into a high-backed barstool and contemplated the drink menu while, two seats over, a dude urged me to consider one of two daily $7 deals: a sidecar or his order, the “solid” old fashioned. A duo on my left both partook in another special, a can of Revolution Cross of Gold and shot of house bourbon for $5.
“We live at Division and Ashland,” one told the bartender before tossing back his whiskey. “So we’re happy this is here.”
I decided on the Sharon Stone sour, a frothy, orangey bourbon sour that owes its warm finish to a splash of ginger syrup. The Polish Broadway, a Żubrówka vodka old fashioned with autumnal cider syrup and drying angostura bitters, was a grassy tribute to the nearby Polish Triangle at Division and Ashland. I gazed at the undercounter cooler packed with row upon row of Hamm’s cans, wondering when the Minneapolis-born lager overtook PBR as the Chicago hipster’s cheap beer of choice.
When my date arrived, we moved to one of the candlelit tables lining the wall opposite the bar. Wild Thoughts—with soul-soothing bourbon, herbaceous green chartreuse and boozy-sweet creme de cacao—was potent and wonderfully rich. Meanwhile, my friend had reservations about splurging on the $20 raspberry daiquiri. Vintage Cordial Campari (which ceased production in the ’90s) provided a clean raspberry backbone to the spicy, banana-bread–like funk of overproof Wray & Nephew Jamaican rum—which helped justify this memorable, big-ticket sipper. It also betrayed Bolt’s penchant for historic booze—evident in the deep library of vintage mixology books he keeps on the back bar. (Drink nerds, take note: Every Thursday, the staff selects a different “library cocktail” to feature from Bolt’s archive.)
As we nursed the daiquiri, I suddenly remembered the first time I visited Neon Wilderness, with a writer friend just after it opened. On our way inside the jam-packed bar, we met a sweat-soaked Bolt, who had ducked outside for a quick smoke.
“I don’t know what the fuck we were thinking, doing these fancy cocktails,” he breathed between drags. I have a feeling this demanding generation of regulars will thank him for it.
Atmosphere: Brad Bolt’s (Bar DeVille) affable Wicker Park watering hole is a welcomed reprieve for a stretch of Milwaukee Avenue populated largely by bro bars and stroller-friendly brunch spots.
What to eat: You’ll find nary a bar snack here, so eat before you come.
What to drink: Introspective house cocktails include the nutty Nose Over Tail with amontillado sherry, banana liqueur and whiskey. Or choose from 15 packaged beers and a handful of mostly Old World wines (including a few fancy sparkling bottles that Bolt has priced comparatively cheap). Happy hour runs from 5 to 7pm daily and features several reliable options.
Where to sit: Six low tables along the perimeter provide intimate seating for pairs or small groups. Or grab a barstool and get to know your bartender.
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.