Many of the bitters, tonics and syrups used in Billy Sunday's cocktails… (Hilary Higgins/RedEye )
Review: Billy Sunday
3143 W. Logan Boulevard
Rating: !!!! (out of 4) Already hot
Talk about pre-opening hype: Before Logan Square's Billy Sunday had shaken its first daiquiri, Details magazine named it one of the five best new "high-end cocktail bars" in America. No pressure, right? Luckily, the two men behind the project had some experience under their belts. While he may not be a household name—yet—head bartender Alex Bachman made a splash on the Chicago cocktail scene at Avondale's Yusho, where his food-friendly drinks complement an Asian street food-inspired menu from chef Matthias Merges. With Billy Sunday, the pair looked to create another hit, this one with the spotlight squarely shining on the cocktails. I stopped in on a snowy Saturday night to find out whether early press had jinxed the bar, or whether it was worthy of the buzz.
Shake off the winter weather.
The snow clinging to my hat and boots melted as soon as I stepped through the front door. Not only was the bar toasty, even near the door and windows, but the dark gray walls and antique accents like black-and-white portraits and vintage candle holders warmed my nostalgic heart. Though it was a Saturday night and the 50-seat bar was nearly full of flannel-chic couples and girls who could have been off-duty Anthropologie models, my host and server both were friendly and attentive. I was offered water while I waited for my table, and had all my questions about the cocktails answered slowly and without pretension.
Stop reading and drink.
I had a lot of questions about the menu, which features some drinks that Bachman calls "reinterpreted classics" like a negroni, a daiquiri and a pisco punch, but with unfamiliar ingredients like Gran Classico bitters and nutmeg gomme syrup. Many of these, including the tonics and bitters, are made in-house. While you could get bogged down asking about each ethereal detail, I found the cocktails tasted much less complicated than they sounded on paper—and at $10, they're not priced like the fanciest of drinks, either. All of them, especially the In Word & Deed, a floral, whiskey-and-egg-white cocktail with a kiss of sweetness, are nuanced, but mostly, they're just delicious. The Kent—made with gin, house-made tonic and the bark of a South American plant called cinchona—simply tasted like the best damn G&T I've had in recent memory. The menu mostly uses clear spirits, but the buttery and spicy bourbon-based creation named Cocktail proves that Bachman has a deft hand with dark liquors as well. So while it's tempting to get lost Googling obscure ingredients on your phone under the table, it's a much better use of your time to start sipping.
Daiquiris and rabbit? Sure!
Where the cocktails are complex, the tight food menu from former G.E.B. chef John Vermiglio is deliciously simple. A few "snacks" like crunchy fried pig ears ($7) and pickled sardines ($10) are fun to share, but the "things in jars" are the best bet for padding your stomach in anticipation of a few hours of drinking. I scraped every last fleck of the fresh, herbal tomato spread ($5) out of its jar, but found it bizarre that I had to order a side of bread ($6) along with it. While the assortment of three breads, baked at Old Town's La Fournette, is high-quality and worth a few extra dollars, it might have been easier to fold that into the cost of the spread itself. Heartier fare, which Bachman calls a "throwback to Sunday suppers," included a polenta-like roasted cream of wheat entrée ($12) and a rabbit pot pie ($18), piping hot in a cast iron skillet topped with a biscuit crust. After my first bite of the creamy, perfectly salted pot pie, I didn't even mind that I was sipping it alongside an incongruously tropical daiquiri … or that I followed it up with three gooey PB&J doughnut holes ($7).
Make friends with the back bar.
True spirits aficionados won't find any of Billy Sunday's rare and defunct spirits listed on the main menu. Instead, the out-of-production rums and scotches line the upper shelves of the black wood and glass bar. "The back bar is very serious," Bachman said. "One of the main reasons we did [Billy Sunday] was to have a home for this inventory that had been building for five years." Chartreuses and vintage amaros may not interest the casual drinker, but guests with a Fernet itch to scratch will find themselves more than satisfied.
Billy Sunday's thoughtful décor, pricier food and intricate drinks won't pull PBR drinkers from nearby dive bars—but no matter. There are plenty of cocktail devotees who will flock here based on early buzz, then stick around for the well-priced and well-made drinks. As well they should.
Who's Billy Sunday anyway?
A former White Sox player and evangelical preacher, Billy Sunday also was an active leader in the Temperance movement to ban alcohol. But head bartender Alex Bachman doesn't think he's an odd namesake for a bar. "He was a guy that was unflinchingly committed to what he believed in," Bachman said.. "He had a deep connection with city of Chicago, and we respect his commitment. In our own right, we're deeply committed to hospitality and the city of Chicago."
Reporters visit bars unannounced and food and drinks are paid for by RedEye.
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