Note: First Looks give previews of new drinks and menus we're curious about. Since they are arranged photo shoots, we do not make critical evaluations or recommendations.
Not many new cocktail bars in Chicago boast a vintage Old Style sign, but the owners of The Revel Room wanted to make sure that the neighborhood knew that something different was happening. The Wicker Park location had housed Empire Liquors, a DJ-driven hot spot known for hip bottle service, for seven years, but it was time for a change. "That business model had really run its course, the bottle service thing was over, and everything was taking a shift towards cocktails," explains General Manager Ty Wyffels. "We didn't want to get too clever, but we wanted to create a real vintage tavern where everyone can come have a drink and enjoy themselves."
Red leather banquettes line the walls, faded mirrors are everywhere and, in the back hides a 'library.' The back room of the bar, only open on weekends, is a nook filled with vintage paintings, club chairs, and shelves covered with wood blocks, individually cut to look like books. "People already flock to this back room," said Wyffels. "Empire was a bit stiff and designed to get people in and out. This is different—we want people to linger."
"We're realizing that Scotch is going to be a big thing here," said bartender Ronnie Higgins, as he showed us around the back library. "For the fall menu, we'll have two Scotch drinks on."
Higgins, formerly of Bar Deville and Bangers & Lace, designed the cocktail program at The Revel Room. "Simplicity is key, really key," explained Higgins. "I just try to make drinks, put a nice twist on them and make sure things rotate seasonally. Anyone who walks in off of the street will get it, especially at this intersection where people are still trying to understand what we're all about."
One of the most popular drinks at The Revel Room features Malört, the much-maligned Chicago spirit. Higgins' goal is to make the spirit a bit more approachable. "I've been messing around with Malört for years. It goes perfectly with honey and grapefruit." For The Reveller ($8), Higgins mixed Malört and honey syrup in a pint glass with the Steigl Radler, a grapefruit soda and beer combination. "We serve the rest of the Steigl on the side, so you can adjust the flavor however you want."
The restaurant also boasts a selection of more than 30 canned beers. "We only have eight taps, but our can selection is great; a lot of offbeat stuff. A beer snob can come in and be really impressed," said Higgins. The Revel Room has both wine and cocktails on tap—a white and a rose right now (to be replaced with a red in a few weeks) plus taps pouring a Blood and Sand ($8) and an Improved Sloe Gin Fizz ($8). The tap cocktail program is about to expand to four drinks, and they will begin carafe service for groups soon.
About the author:Anthony Todd is Food and Drink Editor of Chicagoist.com. Follow him on Twitter (@FoodieAnthony).