Review: Punch House
1227 W. 18th St. 312-526-3851
Rating: 3 1/2 (out of 4) Heating up
How can an aquarium, wood paneling and a mounted sailfish look this cool? That was my first impression as I descended the staircase leading to Punch House, the '70s-inspired cocktail bar that opened two weeks ago in Pilsen's historic Thalia Hall. It's no wonder the space has style to burn; the owners of both Punch House and its upstairs restaurant sibling, Dusek's Board and Beer, also own Logan Square's hippest whiskey and comfort food outfit, Longman & Eagle. But whereas Dusek's has an antique, tin ceiling-and-gilded-mirrors feel, the basement looks like it sprang from a Pinterest board inspired by my grandparents' rec room. The owners are plenty enthusiastic about the building's historic inspiration, but really, that seemed much less important once I was two boozy glasses into a punch bowl. Imagine we're sitting around the dimly lit table from "That '70s Show" and allow me to share my tips for this rad new subterranean bar:
While I spotted a few couples and trios during my visit, I was thankful that I had brought a group of five to Punch House. It made ordering an eight-drink punch bowl ($59) a no-brainer, plus sitting in one of the six curved booths along the wall opposite the bar allowed me to talk to my friends over a soundtrack that included every buzzy artist from Chance the Rapper to Lorde. I didn't get much cell reception in the basement, so you'll likely have to leave the Instagramming for later and concentrate on actual conversation—or the artistically disheveled 20- and 30-somethings lounging on couches or posted up at the bar. Thalia Hall opened in 1892 as a public hall, hosting everything from political rallies to theater, and Punch House and Dusek's co-owner Bruce Finkelman (who also owns Empty Bottle) hopes this new incarnation continues to be a place for groups to gather. An events space in the same building is in the works to host musical performances, festivals and film in 2014.
Sample and share
Two of us arrived at the bar before the rest of our group, which gave us time to order individual glasses of punch ($8) before committing to a carafe ($32) or punch bowl. The menu has eight varieties ranging from spicy and complex to simple and fizzy, divided into contemporary (Punch House's own recipes) and classic (based on historic recipes dating back as far as the 17th century). The Gin Tea Punch was a light, slightly sweet combination of locally distilled Letherbee gin, earl grey tea, lemon juice, cinnamon and a hint of autumn-appropriate spice from Gilka Kummel, a caraway-flavored liqueur from Germany. Likewise, the Garrick Punch is fizzy and easy-to-drink, with a clean gin flavor that's rounded out every so subtly by woody Luxardo liqueur. At the opposite end of the spectrum, the Dusek Punch is dark and bourbon-heavy, with just a splash of lemon and a dash of nutmeg. My favorite, though, was the Sanyal Punch (apparently I'm not alone in that, since beverage director Will Duncan said it's been "shockingly popular"), which my table quickly ordered by the bowl. It literally warmed my belly with an unexpected combination of Chilean pisco, darjeeling tea, pineapple and citrus juice and chili flakes. Whether his punches are light or dark, Duncan said they must, above all, be balanced. The word punch comes from a Hindi word that means "five," he said, referring to the harmony of five flavors: strong, weak, bitter, sour and sweet. There's also a menu of craft beer and four cocktails ($9) for non-punch drinkers, though Duncan read my mind when he said that he can't imagine who those people might be.
Basement bars, like clockless casinos, make it easy to lose track of time. That's especially true of Punch House, where each ladle of punch from the vintage bowl at the center of our table made me less inclined to ascend the stairs and leave this funky time capsule. The music was good, my friends and I hadn't touched our phones in more than an hour and the colorful fish gliding through the pristine salt water aquarium had become oddly hypnotic. It was wise of us to order snacks at that point—the cheesy-salty mornay-stuffed pretzel ($6) and crispy brandade fritter puffs ($7) were easy to share and probably kept me from later stumbling through Pilsen in search of a midnight tamale. Those with bigger appetites can easily wander upstairs to Dusek's for heartier dishes such as grilled sardines ($12) and confit porchetta ($19). Though the restaurant and bar are distinct environments, it doesn't feel awkward to flow between the two.
Plenty of bars claim vintage inspiration, but few execute in a way that feels as fresh as Punch House. The unique punches, well-edited design (no fondue sets, thankfully) and one-of-a-kind building set it apart from other cocktail spots. Invite the right people and you're guaranteed a righteous trip.
RedEye reporters visit restaurants unannounced and meals are paid for by RedEye. firstname.lastname@example.org | @redeyeeatdrink