Guests at Chicago’s hot Gilt Bar need not worry about overspending at this unpretentious restaurant and lounge, which was opened earlier this year. With $11 specialty cocktails, reasonably priced wines, craft beers and contemporary comfort food entrees topping out at $18, even the most frugal patrons can find something both appealing and affordable.
The 145-seat restaurant, with its cozy eight-seat bar, goes so far as to offer a 10-ounce Hoffman goblet of Pabst Blue Ribbon for $2 and two house wines, a 2009 Kroara Gavi Cortese and a 2009 Kroara Barbera, both from Piedmont and offered for $4 a glass. “People are so excited about those values,” says owner Brendan Sodikoff, alum of Chicago’s local and popular Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises.
“We sought out great value wines to buy and put a lot of work into finding them. Our cocktail price of $11 for everything, except special premium brands, is the lowest in town,” Sodikoff says.
With a beverage sales mix of 40 percent cocktails, 40 percent wine and 20 percent beer, it appears that making a profit, especially on higher-margin mixed drinks, is not a problem. Good publicity in local media early on and word-of-mouth advertising have been positive, according to Sodikoff.
Best-selling cocktails are Le Bar St. Germain, a blend of St. Germain Elderflower Liqueur, lemon and Santome Prosecco; and Death’s Door Daisy, a sour made with Death’s Door Vodka, Aperol, St. Germain and lemon. Gilt Bar sells about 200 of each cocktail per week, estimates beverage director Jean Tomaro.
“The Champagne cocktail is the easiest for us to build in the glass so we put it on the top of the menu,” says Sodikoff, adding that all drink ingredients are located within the service bartenders’ reach to speed up service on all cocktails during busy times.
Some cocktails, including a classic New Orleans-inspired Sazerac and a Pisco Tropical, made with Santiago Queirolo, Rothman & Winter apricot liqueur, egg white and lime, are likely to be served year-round, while others are slated to change seasonally. A newcomer this season is the Pimm’s Cup, featuring Pimm’s No. 1 gin, ginger beer, lemon, cucumber, orange and mint.
Unusual Wine Offerings
About 20 white wines and 20 reds are listed in order from light to fuller-bodied selections. The whites are priced from $24 for a Casamatta Vermentino from Tuscany to $40 for a Graziano Chenin Blanc from Mendocino, while the reds range from the Cantele Primitivo from Puglia in Southern Italy for $23 to the Anoro Malbec from Mendoza, Argentina, for $60. The list includes selections from many of the world’s lesser-known wine regions, including Pullus Sauvignon Blanc and Quatro Mani Tocai, both from Slovenia.
Unlike many restaurants, Gilt Bar encourages wine lovers to bring in their own bottles, provided they share one glass with a neighboring table in exchange for free corkage. Most get into the sharing spirit, Sodikoff says, although a few clearly prefer to keep the whole bottle for themselves.
The beer list emphasizes American microbrews and Belgian imports. Among the leading sellers are a malty Belgian Tripel Karmeliete at $12 a bottle and the peppery dark ale, Ayinger Celebrator, at $9 a bottle. Beer sales tend to skew toward the younger crowd, Tomaro says.
Food descriptions are deceptively simple, such as Paris Mushroom and Truffle Pasta or Gunthorp Farm Roast Chicken with Oregano and Roasted Garlic, but the dishes contain stellar ingredients, many from regional farmers who are sometimes credited on the menu. Diners often share courses, especially those who choose to sit at communal tables, including people who initially didn’t know each other.
Familiar dishes, such as Pot Roast with Red Wine and Glazed Vegetables, to the more esoteric Roasted Bone Marrow with Red Onion Jam are all good sellers. Sodikoff was surprised to learn that on average, 30 bone marrow appetizers are ordered nightly since they became known as the restaurant’s specialty.
The reasonable prices, understated, casual tavern atmosphere and interesting food and drink menu attracts a diverse clientele, with the heaviest concentration being young professionals. Dining areas consist of wooden tables in the front and a back area of communal tables, large booths and sofas.
With beverage alcohol and food sales splitting at 50-50, the small bar area has proven especially popular. The energy level picks up as the evening wears on, accompanied by an eclectic recorded music mix of tunes ranging from blues to rock to Johnny Cash hits. Groups of revelers often come in for late-night snacks or libations.
A lower-level cocktail lounge, named Curio, recently opened with a speakeasy atmosphere and cash-only policy, and specializes in mixed drinks.