Like the first time I tried to go to the Violet Hour and walked straight past the door, I had no idea how to get into the Drifter, a new bar located underneath Green Door Tavern. But while the Violet Hour was Chicago’s first nouveau speakeasy, bar culture has changed over the past eight years—now, when a bar claims to be a speakeasy, all that means is that it’s dark, with well-made cocktails and bartenders in retro clothes.
The Drifter breaks the mold, since it’s actually located in an old speakeasy space, and it’s missing the pretentious trappings a lot of cocktail bars have. In speakeasy days, people would enter a door a couple blocks away and get into the bar through a window, which has been covered over. We had to ask at Green Door how to get in, so I’ll save you the trouble: Walk through Green Door, head downstairs and enter through the wooden door that’s next to the restrooms. There’s no sign, but if the door guy isn’t there taking names for a waitlist that grows longer as the night goes on (though we walked right in at 5:30pm on a Saturday), knock and he’ll let you in.
Once inside, the space is dark, cozy and full of objects that were already there when bartender Liz Pearce (Gage, Drawing Room, Aviary) took over the unused space. There are old paintings, like one of FDR that overlooks the end of the bar, a bullet-riddled Mobil sign, flags billowing from the ceiling and dozens of dusty old bottles lined up atop the bar.
It’s a comfortable, low-key spot to hang out, and the cocktails are similarly approachable—they’re slightly challenging but mostly just really good. There’s a rotating selection of drinks, which are printed on tarot cards, and each day Pearce draws the evening’s offerings. Over two visits, there were no repeat cocktails. That was initially disappointing, since I wanted another sip of the velvety chocolate negroni from my first visit, but there were plenty of gems on the second dealing: South American Mistress, a smooth blend of pisco, vermouth and Fernet, balanced with chocolate liqueur and bitters; Red Rum, a creamy, bright mix of rum, port, lemon, grenadine and egg white, which smells like the fresh red bell pepper that’s also in there; and the Mizzz McFlurry, an elevated Shamrock Shake, with vodka, maraschino liqueur, cream, Wondermint and lime. There’s also a $4 house shot, the Yuge, made with vodka, cachaca, citrus and Chareau, an aloe liqueur. Another cool thing: The bartenders were all women on both my visits, and I can’t think of another time—ever—when I’ve gone to a cocktail bar with only female bartenders.
There’s also a stage, and the curtain is occasionally drawn back for performers, like a belly dancer, jugglers and burlesque dancers. I was worried that the performances wouldn’t work in such a tiny space, but they make the Drifter feel like a bar that's been here forever, where anything can happen.