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.
The first thing that strikes you when you walk into The Dawson, which recently opened in Chicago's West Town, is the size. The space, formerly a mantlepiece factory, was completely gutted and extended by owners Billy Lawless and Branko Palikuca, and now seats 400 people. The two-story entryway, dominated by hanging bubble light fixtures, is the gateway to a downstairs dining room and an upstairs bar.
Despite the size, don't be surprised if this place is a bit packed. "It's been a little chaotic, but in a good way, mostly because we didn't really anticipate so many people coming right away," explained bartender Annemarie Sagoi. They didn't even open the second floor until last week. The menus are identical, but the second floor is designed for lingering, with a roaring fireplace, denim-covered walls, and what Sagoi describes as a "sexy" vibe.
Sagoi trained as a furniture designer, lived in Japan and France and started her bartending career at Nightwood. After stints at Graham Elliot, Big Star, and The Charleston, Sagoi now runs things at The Dawson. She didn't start out as a spirits geek; she learned it all on the job. "I drank a lot of bourbon, but I didn't know very much. I barely knew what a Manhattan was! I learned flavor combinations, and garnishes and terminology from Clint Rogers at Nightwood," she told us.
The Dawson's drink menu includes 10 cocktails (all are $10), a 'daily dram' infused in the tall glass column downstairs ($5), and a selection of nonalcoholic sodas ($6) created by in-house soda jerk Dalton Finney.
Sagoi uses a reference to her design career to explain her drink-making style. "I remember my professors observing that I would do a lot of seemingly simple, linear work where the fewer facets that you have, the harder it is to make it good. If you pare it down to three or four ingredients, your ratios are important."
In addition to the cocktails, the menu includes a daily 'gourmet jello shot,' an idea that Sagoi came up with when she was at The Charleston and got her media attention when it was named one of Time Out Chicago's '100 Best Things We Ate and Drank in 2012.' One recent shot included gin, peach liqueur, falernum, Mariposa agave liqueur, and old fashioned bitters. The combination was topped with a pecan streusel, giving it a dessert-like feel.
Sagoi says that the nonalcoholic drinks have been a surprise hit. There are two on the menu right now, but the plan is to expand. "Drinking isn't just about getting drunk; it's about taste," explains Sagoi. "Most people who are pregnant or don't drink get really bored with ginger beer after a while. Why shouldn't you have something fun? You shouldn't be punished because you don't drink."
Their current project? A homemade root beer with more than 20 ingredients. "The reason why bars don't make non-alcoholic drinks more is because you have to treat it like a cocktail program," Sagoi said. "Everything is from scratch. Everyone thinks it would be a great idea, but it take so much time and energy, and sourcing all of these things is really hard."