It’s easy to write off a restaurant—the reservation-taking, napkin-in-the-lap, no-late-hours kind—as no more than a good spot to impress a date for dinner. But for many, the bar can be one of the best seats in the house. Restaurants such as the West Loop’s Sepia (123 N. Jefferson St.) are known as much for their cocktails as they are their food—so why not stop in for just a drink and a bite? Choose from one of these six spots where you can soak up the restaurant atmosphere without having to call ahead.
GT Fish & Oyster
531 N. Wells St., 312-929-3501
If you’re craving seafood but don’t want to commit to a full meal, head to this buzzed-about River North spot and try for a seat at the bar, where the full menu is served.
To sip: Think summer with a spiked lemonade ($10) or go craft with the house take on a Manhattan (bourbon, bitters, averna and vermouth) or the Vineyard Sour (gin, blackberry syrup, malbec and mint) for $12 each.
To snack: The name says it all; don’t leave without trying a few oysters (around $2.75 each), or for something heartier, split a lobster roll ($22) or shrimp bruschetta ($11).
1639 S. Wabash Ave., 312-360-9500
If you’re in the area and looking for something new, don’t miss the drinks at this new South Loop restaurant. With bar director Michael Simon (formerly of Graham Elliot and the Black Sheep) at the helm, you’re sure to find your next favorite drink.
To sip: Simon has put together a well-rounded cocktail list with unusual twists such as a Rum & Kola Smash (rum, homemade cola tonic, lemon juice and bitters) or a juniper sazerac (rye, juniper brown sugar, creole bitters and absinthe), each for $12.
To snack: Balance your booze with charcuterie such as a wild boar terrine and chicken liver mousse ($15), or indulge in the ultimate comfort food, a lobster pie with pearl onions, carrots and potatoes in a sour-cream pastry ($32). The full menu is currently available and the bar, with a bar menu to be released soon.
59 W. Hubbard St., 312-595-0800
Couldn’t snag a reservation at this hot Hubbard Street spot? Head over early to snag a seat at one of the first-come, first-served tall tables or bar seats, where the full dining room menu is served. Fair warning: It gets packed on weekends and late nights.
To sip: Toast to scoring a seat with a glass of champagne ($10-$42) or a house cocktail such as the chartreuse gimlet (green chartreuse, gin and lime for $10)
To snack: Share a few French-inspired small plates (each around $7) or a hearty charcuterie board ($14.95 per person). Still there after midnight Thursday through Saturday? Check out the abbreviated late-night menu for alcohol-soaking fare such as frites fromage ($7.95) or croque monsieur fingers ($5.95)
Benny’s Chop House
444 N. Wabash Ave., 312-626-2444
Turn to the right as you hit the top of the stairs at this River North steakhouse and you’ll find an expansive bar area with plenty of no-reservation-required seating at tall tables and the huge bar. Bonus: The bar stays open an hour later than the dining room each night.
To sip: New to the cocktail menu is “Candy is Dandy, but Liquor is Quicker” (whiskey, orange juice, maraschino and vermouth for $12) and the “Bucket List” (gin, St. Germain, green chartreuse, fresh lime and cava for $14).
To snack: Go big with a trio of sliders (pick from crabcake, lobster roll, prime burger with porcini and truffles or prime tenderloin with horseradish cream) for $9.99, or keep it light with a half-dozen oysters for $14.99.
161 N. Jefferson St., 312-669-9900
Trying to escape West Loop crowd? Try stopping by this tucked-away bar inside a restaurant known for its Latin-inspired small plates. You can order from the full dining room menu in addition to a smaller bar menu.
To sip: Try the house martini, a blend of Midwestern-made Death’s Door gin or vodka along with a piquillo pepper or blue cheese-and-chorizo-stuffed Spanish olive ($12). Looking for something sweeter? Opt for the Sage Advice with gin, ginger syrup, pears and sage ($11).
To snack: You can’t go wrong splitting a selection of small plates, including shellfish ceviche ($9), caesar salad toast ($7) and tuna tacos ($8), or try a smoked chicken sausage flatbread to split from the bar menu ($8).
1475 W. Balmoral Ave., 773-334-7168
This Andersonville farm-to-table Dutch bistro occasionally uses their bar tables for overflow reservation seating, but otherwise drinker have free reign of them, along with the eight-seat main bar. The kitchen stops serving food at 10 p.m. weeknights and 11 p.m. on weekends, but you’re always welcome to stay a bit later at the bar for another round.
To sip: Order the Dutch 75, a variation on the French 75 made with gin, lillet blanc, bitters, lemon juice and champagne ($8).
To snack: While the menu’s big plates may look tempting, save yourself some elbow room and opt for smaller plates such as the housemade pate ($12), cheese plate ($4 per ounce) or bitterballen, fried pork meatballs served with mustard ($10).
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