Alinea chef/owner Grant Achatz's West Loop cocktail kitchen, The… (Lenny Gilmore/RedEye )
955 W. Fulton Market 312-226-0868
Hours: 6 p.m. to 1:30 a.m. - Wednesday through Sunday
Rating: 4 out of 4, Already hot
You probably can’t afford The Aviary.
At least, you probably don’t think you can. I know I didn’t. With the team from Alinea at the helm and Grant Achatz’s much-hyped Next basically sharing the space, my 24-year-old starting salary didn’t stand a chance against this futuristic cocktail kitchen, right? Well, kind of.
While it may not seem right to slap the term “accessible” on a cocktail lounge with a $28 drink on the menu, The Aviary isn’t as scary as you may think. Yes, you can get in and out and still make rent. Yes, you can go even if you don’t know the difference between a sazerac and a sidecar. Yes, you can skip the wardrobe panic—dark denim and that Gap top will blend in just fine in this sleek, but not stuffy space.
Stick with me. It’s going to be OK.
To drink classy, you’ve got to travel broke. That means no cabs, do you hear me? Put your hand down. One unfortunate side effect of Aviary’s industrial-chic West Loop location is limited public transit options. The Grand Blue Line stop is a bit of a haul, but if you can find your way to the Halsted bus, it gets you within four blocks at Halsted and Fulton Market. It may not be the best-smelling four-block walk (think lots of meat trucks), but we’re on a mission here. And you just saved $20.
Drinking here is a team sport. If you’re going to be enjoying your cocktails with a few buddies, you’re going to need a game plan going in. If one person is ready to throw down half a paycheck while everyone else wincing at the idea of dropping $30, things are gonna get real awkward, real quick. Be upfront about your expectations. Better yet, make plans to hit up a dive when you’re done with a round of future booze. Oh, and make sure nobody has anything contagious—you’re going to want to do the pass-around.
Skip the food. At $6, the piece of wagyu with smoked paprika, pumpkin seed and yogurt can go on record as the most expensive bite of food I’ve ever put in my mouth. The “Bites” menu is literally just that: single-bite snacks, ordered in groups of three for $3-$6 per bite. I’m not saying they’re not delicious (I’d easily down a dozen of the strawberry and balsamic-tinged cheesecake poppers), but it’s hard to justify $5 for a bite of foie gras when you know you’re going to be downing a plate of mini corndogs for roughly the same price 45 minutes later.
Make it count. It is totally possible to get in and out of Aviary for $25. Repeat after me: One. Cocktail. Actually, you’ll be getting three: Aviary doles out a small amuse cocktail at the start of the meal and a delicious take on a flip just before you leave. Keeping in mind that the average drink falls around $16, and an 18% gratuity is automatically added to your group’s bill, you’re just going to have to exercise some restraint. Before you go, think about your goal:
Are you looking to catch a buzz? I would hardly consider my friends novice drinkers, and we were surprised when just one cocktail was enough to feel it. Try In the Rocks ($18), a strong, citrusy bourbon cocktail, not unlike an Old Fashioned, encased in an ice egg that is shattered with a tiny slingshot-like device. Smooth, but incredibly strong. If you’re looking for something a little sweeter, the “Pineapple” ($16) is incredibly refreshing with a bite of mint and a subtle kick from the herby Chartreuse.
Are you looking to impress your friends with a Facebook photo of the craziest-looking cocktail? Opt for the Blueberry. The Blueberry ($19) comes to the table in a glass dubbed the porthole. The circular glass container, stuffed with all sorts of fruit, herbs and flowers (not to mention sweet vermouth and rye) is not only gorgeous to look at in front of the glow of a candle, its delicious fruit-and-tea taste gets a little stronger with each pour.
Are you looking to find the next best cocktail in Chicago? Order the Ginger ($17). It’s molecular gastronomy in a glass—a liquid nitrogen-shot mixture of ginger, lime juice, sugar and water spread in the glass like snow and garnished with tweezer-placed bits of chilies and micro shiso leaves. At the table you’ll pour in the sidecar glass of water, sugar and vodka and swizzle with a piece of lemongrass to create the perfect play of spicy and sweet with a melt-in-your-mouth texture. You can thank me later.
Get out. Now. I know it’s hard. But if you don’t ask for the check now, you’re going to be playing a really fun game with your friends soon. It’s called “over or under $200.” Nobody wins.