In this age of Instagram, Mason jars and handlebar mustaches, it's no surprise that retro-inspired bars are hot again. Chicago's been hooked on craft cocktails since The Violet Hour opened in 2007, and many craft cocktail bars draw recipes from historic sources. Prohibition-era speakeasies and "Mad Men"-esque drinks have been the reigning styles for the past several years, but a new wave of bars expands the flashback to include the late 1930s tiki craze, 1970s glamour and even decades as recent as the early 1990s. The trend shows no signs of losing steam. And why should it, when everyone knows a history lesson goes down easier with a stiff drink in hand? Hop in our time machine as we explore a by-the-decade guide to some of the notable openings from the recent past.
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Prohibition Era (1920-1933): Untitled 111 W. Kinzie St. 312-880-1511
While alcohol technically was banned for more than a decade at the start of the 20th century, it was really no use trying to keep Americans from the bottle. Speakeasies, or illegal drinking spots, are the inspiration behind Untitled, a year-plus-old, 18,000-square-foot bar and restaurant in River North that boasts a 328-bottle whiskey selection.
Retro drink: Pistol Smoke ($13). You might not be able to smoke in bars any longer, but dim lighting and a haze of tobacco smoke would have been the norm during Prohibition. Conjure that vibe with this blended scotch and chamomile cocktail shaken with black and gold tobacco, lemon juice, simple syrup and vanilla.
Retro design: Though the only truly speakeasy element of Untitled's design is the lack of a sign, the 35 Angel's Envy and Elijah Craig whiskey barrels—transported to Chicago from Bardstown, Kentucky—that rim the outdoor patio on Carroll Street do evoke a bootlegging history.
Late 1930s and early 1940s: Three Dots and a Dash 435 N. Clark St. 312-610-4220
The tiki craze that inspired cocktail director Paul McGee's month-old lounge below Bub City isn't confined to the late '30s and early '40s, but it's these years when America was craziest for all things umbrella, Hawaiian and beach-themed. Tiki bar pioneers Don the Beachcomber, Trader Vic and Stephen Crane had expanded their faux-Polynesian empires to major cities by this point, and many of McGee's cocktails directly draw from their recipes.
Retro drink: Three Dots and a Dash ($13). The left half of Three Dots' menu is devoted to historic cocktails, and it's the namesake drink that McGee suggests trying first. Named for the Morse code letter V (for victory), the cocktail is a sweet-and-bitter double rum-based drink that emulates a creation from Don the Beachcomber's 1940s-era bar in California.
Retro design: Ukuleles on the walls, surf rock on the speakers and Hawaiian-print dresses on the servers all are fun, but it's the custom tiki mugs that really make you want to whip out your camera phones. If you can't bear to part with the vessel, take home your own ceramic Three Dots and a Dash-branded sea urchin mug for $20 beginning Monday.
Late 1950s and early 1960s: The Drinkingbird 2201 N. Clybourn Ave. 773-472-9920
With a nod to the fun-loving decades that inspired "Grease" and "Hairspray," year-and-a-half-old Lincoln Park bar The Drinkingbird commits to classic cocktails and retro decor without veering into Disneyland territory. Yes, there's neon and printed wallpaper, but you'll also find approximately 40 beer options plus $9 classic cocktails that are no gimmick.
Retro drink: The Pimm's Cup ($9). In addition to claiming the title of the bar's most popular drink, The Pimm's Cup also alludes to the bar's mid-century motif. While astronauts landed on the moon and the Beatles rocked the world, English-based Pimm's introduced two new recipes to its lineup, the rye-based No.5 and the Pimm's Vodka Cup (No.6). It's Pimm's No.1, though—a gin-based, spicy and citrusy recipe—that forms the base of The Drinkingbird's Pimm's Cup.
Retro design: The Drinkingbird's neon signs are an obvious and eye-catching reference to the '60s, but the bar's designer included more subtle elements as well. Look for a Sputnik lamp, a mid-century style of lighting fixture that resembles a satellite, as well as vintage glass tiles and tufted booths.
1970s: Jimmy 610 N. Rush St. 312-660-7191
Think less "Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me" and more "Casino" when imagining this two-week-old cocktail lounge tucked behind Burke's Bacon Bar in the James Chicago hotel. The bar channels the progressive, free-spirited vibe of the '70s without losing the glamour associated with decade's cocktail culture.
Retro drink: Rusty Nail ($16). Though it was created in the '50s, the Rusty Nail hit its stride in the '70s when, some say, it became a favorite of the "Rat Pack." The drink was traditionally just scotch and Drambuie, a honey, herb and spice-flecked whiskey liqueur, but Jimmy updates the recipe with lavender bitters and a violet ice cube.