|By Lauren Viera, Chicago
TribuneMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Mar. 4, 2010--Once upon a time, classic cocktails and classic hotel lounges went hand in hand, like gin and dry vermouth.
But that's an elusive bragging right these days, especially locally. Which is a shame: With the recent resurgence of traditional, Prohibition-era cocktails, it's only natural to long for complementary venues at which to sip them.
Sure, there's a growing number of destination restaurants that invest in thoughtful cocktail menus, and several new bars have tapped into the trend. But there's a unique allure in the well-run hotel lounge: Catering to international tourists and deep-pocketed business clientele, neatly uniformed hotel bartenders tend to be at their most accommodating, shaking and stirring expensive libations while doling out ornate bowls of mixed nuts in the midst of a pleasantly hushed, dimly lit sea of plush banquettes.
In my recent hunt for the perfect Chicago hotel bar, I was after a particular mood. I wanted to find a classy lounge of yore: dark colors and textures typical of a private club; perhaps a hint of a bygone golden age, with history hanging heavy in the air, and long nights of lounging worn deep into leather booths. And most of all, I wanted well-executed classic cocktails, worthy of predictably inflated price tags.
Check out how we rate Chicago's hotel bars on a scale of one through five.
My first stop was at the Drake Hotel's Coq d'Or, which opened Dec. 6, 1933 -- the day after Prohibition was repealed in the United States. Fortunately, the lounge's classy ambiance has changed little in the 76 years since. The burgundy-colored leather booths, the gilded finishes, the tuxedoed bartender -- all accounted for. But ask for a Tom Collins, the classic gin-based sour long drink that has been ordered with multiple variations since the 1870s, and you're lucky if it's served in the appropriate tall-glass tumbler (which, incidentally, is named for the drink). At Coq d'Or, my watered-down Collins-mix cocktail was served in a hurricane glass drowning in ice.
Experiences elsewhere were met with mixed results. At the Four Seasons, whose classy Seasons bar and lounge has been around since the hotel opened in 1989, my bartender got my drink mostly right. But in place of the called-for fresh lemon juice and sugar, my $11 cocktail was made with a house-made mix.
The Ambassador East Hotel's famous Pump Room was by far the most disappointing, considering its storied history. Opened in 1938, it was at one time the go-to hotel lounge in Chicago, frequented by Marilyn Monroe, Paul Newman and the like.
On my visit, I was one of just three patrons sitting in the bar and still had to wait five minutes before the bartender on duty, concentrating intently on his handheld device, finally took notice. In reply to my Tom Collins request, he produced a watery vodka-soda, splashed with Rose's lime juice, served in a pint glass.
Only after I asked him how he made the drink did he pause, brows furrowed, and ask, "What's in a Tom Collins, anyway?" After hearing out the recipe and trying his hand at a fresh drink, he set it down in front of me apologetically and said, "You should always get what you want. Especially when you're out."
What I want, I'm afraid, doesn't exist anymore.
A few folks are getting it right. But they usually have to hire mixology consultants such as Peter Vestinos, beverage development director at Wirtz Beverage Group, to lead the way.
"The argument I make when I work with hotels is we need to bring back your bar to where it should be," Vestinos said in a recent phone call. He argues that a hotel bar, if any establishment, should be stepping up its their game.
"If you look back at history, the hotel bar is really where the cocktail trend started. The benefit of a hotel bar is that you have this huge staff at your disposal, and you have access to fresh produce (for juices), and so much prep time."
The Renaissance Chicago, for instance, hired Vestinos to design the cocktail menu for its new lounge, Bar Novo, which opened last fall. The nostalgia factor is virtually nonexistent, but the cocktails are good. They use simple, fresh ingredients at the ready in the hotel's kitchen (cucumber, bell pepper, mint, basil) and are mostly limited to three ingredients -- easy for hotel bartenders to make, easy for hotel customers to comprehend.
NoMI Lounge, perched in a panorama on the seventh floor of the Park Hyatt Chicago, has been capitalizing on its adjacent kitchen for years. "We try to pick a few cocktails based on the season using the freshest ingredients that will highlight that time of year," says NoMI food and beverage director David Breo. "Our menu doesn't highlight classic cocktails, because we assume that people are going to come to us expecting a perfectly made classic cocktail, regardless." Instead, classics work their way onto the menu when appropriate. Winter calls for warmth and spice, Breo says, hence the addition of the rum-and-ginger flavored Dark 'n' Stormy and the rye whiskey-based Remember the Maine. Rounding out the mix are contemporary cocktails, such as the Winter Sour, which blends house-made, date-infused bourbon and maple syrup with lemon juice, egg whites and bitters.
As for NoMI's Tom Collins? It's made with fresh-squeezed lemon juice, as it should be.
How do the hotel bars rank in terms of nostalgia factor, quality of cocktails and overall classiness? View our ratings HERE.
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