Speaking Easy: The Violet Hour, Chicago

vh_int1.jpgOne of a number of popular speakeasy-themed bars sprouting up across the nation, Chicago’s The Violet Hour just may be the best. (Don’t believe us? just ask these guys.) Toby Maloney–the über-bartender of New York’s Milk & Honey fame–has gathered a team of fellow bartenders who see mixing as equal parts science and art.

The elegant bar hides behind an abandoned building exterior; the only piece out of place is a door handle sticking out of the wall, which, once pulled, leads to the Violet Hour’s dark waiting room. On my visit, my group and I were initially disappointed at being led to bar seats–we had wanted to sit in the ultra-high-backed chairs grouped around candlelit tables, or better yet, next to the fireplace. But we immediately realized that we had been awarded the best seats in the house. The dimly lit bar gleamed with varieties of booze that I didn’t recognize (a bit different from the collection at my local college-town bar). Bottles that looked like they contained potions were lined up as if to say “at your service.” I found out later that these were the homemade bitters, syrups, and hand-squeezed juices used in the cocktails.

Slightly overwhelmed, we explained to our bartender that it was our first time at the bar. I added that I was a bit intimidated by the menu (I had just turned 21). He told us to each pick a type of alcohol and then he would make a drink using it. If we didn’t like his concoction, he would make us another. He called it “dealer’s choice.” As someone who constantly struggles with buyers’ remorse, I was delighted.

vh_pimento2.jpgEach of our drinks was served in a different glass, and each had a corresponding block of ice shaped to fit that glass. For example, my mom’s blackberry and whiskey drink was served in a lowball glass with a perfectly sized sphere of ice. Maloney explains: “Ice is as important to a bartender in a high-end cocktail bar as a stove is to a chef in a restaurant.”

As we we enjoyed our beverages, which even shared a common ingredient (mint), our bartender noticed that I was borrowing more sips than enjoying my Mai Tai. He asked me if I liked it, and I said, “Yeah,” with a slight shrug. Not happy that I merely seemed to be satisfied, he took it away and made me a new, fabulous drink. I don’t think it’s on the menu (I checked), but it still had mint in it. Our favorite drink of the night? The Juliet and Romeo, ranked the third best cocktail in America by GQ magazine.

Pretty soon there will be even more to celebrate in Chicago: Big Star, a dive bar/tacqueria/honky-tonk joint is set to open in the old Pontiac Cafe space in Wicker Park–literally across the street from the Violet Hour.

Taking its cue from Depression-era Bakersfield, Big Star will deliver turntables and country music alongside the eats of award-winning chef Paul Kahan, and is under the direction of Violet Hour’s Michael Rubel.

A date hasn’t been set yet, but look for Big Star to open its doors in the next month or so. Combining a visit to both spots could make for an interesting night out.

Interested in learning more about Toby Maloney’s “bartender injuries, his feelings on the whole ‘ice program’ thing, and why he drinks High Life”? Check out this interview in Chicagoist.

Photographs courtesy of Michael Robinson Photography and Matthew Martinez.


  1. Steve
    October 20, 2009, 1:11 pm

    I was just in Chicago, but I’ll try the Violet Hour on my next trip. Always something new to try when you visit Chicago… thanks for the tip.