Already an incredibly dynamic food and drink town, Chicago hardly needed another great bar and dining venue. But it got one with the recent opening of Tavernita, a new concept from the Mercadito Group. The trendy, River North area is home to this boisterous bar with an ambitious drinks and food program.
The sexy space boasts curved booths and a long ample bar that stretches the length of the restaurant’s front room. A handful of dining tables face the busy bar, at which customers often run three-tiers deep on the weekends when the music is pumped up. And there is, somehow, room to dance and mingle in between the bar stools and tables.
The wine list is diverse, esoteric and food friendly, with such options as riesling, rosé and tempranillo. Wines are offered in tastes (ranging in price from $5 to $8), by the glass ($9 to $12) and bottles ($26 to $33). A handful of local and international beers are available for $7 to $8, with a 750-ml. bottle of Estrella Damm Inedit witbier from Spain priced at $20.
Tavernita also carries a variety of house-made sodas, kegged sangria and unique cocktails such as the One-thumbed Gypsy, which is made with lemon cachaca, red pepper and saffron syrup, lemon and Moroccan bitters, and sells for $13.
A kegged cocktail concept
Tavernita’s cocktail program aims to distinguish itself from its parent concept Mercadito by focusing primarily on tequila. Another point of distinction: its innovative “kegged cocktails.” The 10 kegged cocktails available include the Booty Collins, priced at $11.50, made with green tea-infused Absolut Vodka, passion fruit and yohimbe (an herb said to have aphrodisiac properties). The S.O.S. Cherry ($10.50) is made with Olmeca Tequila Reposado, limoncello and sour cherry.
The beverage consulting team Tippling Bros., who opened a series of Mercadito restaurants in various markets including Chicago, created the drinks list behind Tavernita. They also developed the kegged concept. “Given the volumes of cocktails we were selling at Mercadito, we knew that Tavernita was also going to be very busy,” says Tad Carducci, cofounder of Tippling Bros. and a partner in New York-based The Tippler and Mercadito Hospitality.
“We had decided that we were going to put several wines on tap, drawing inspiration from restaurants in Barcelona that serve homemade vermouths on draft,” he says. “It hit us that serving cocktails the same way would be a perfect way to consistently serve our drinks in a timely fashion,” says Carducci. The formula has been a success, both in terms of drink taste profile and quick turn-around on busy nights.
But creating a kegged-cocktail program was more intensive than the Tippling Bros. had imagined.
“As we began our research, we realized that we would have to hand-build our entire draft system, from kegs, lines and gas to the taps themselves,” notes Carducci. “From there it took an amazing amount of design—and a ton of cash—to get the lines up and running.”
Tavernita employs a “batchmaster” by the name of Scott Huth. He is responsible for all steps of production, which includes juicing and syrup creation to maintenance of the gas system and the physical lines and taps.
Like the cocktails, the menu’s inspiration comes from classic Spanish bars as well. Basque-influenced dishes like prawns a la pancha (grilled prawns), priced at $17 are highlighted, alongside riffs on traditional plates, such as beef and pork meatballs ($15), and house-made ravioli ($13.50). Pan-Latin favorites like ceviche—in various interpretations—are also part of the lineup, along with a wide variety of oysters.
Some classic Spanish dishes, plenty of wine options and a handful of great cocktails are likely to set a standard for this new restaurant concept in the competitive Chicago market. While Carducci wouldn’t confirm any specific plans, he hinted that a handful of other cities might be graced with a Tavernita or two in the future.