To help you figure out which new restaurants are worth going to, we created The Hit List, our guide to recently opened spots that we actually enjoy. We check out all of these places ourselves - even if a place is being hyped up everywhere, it’s not going to make our cut unless it delivers.
Now, we’re doing the same thing for bars. Chicago has a long, storied drinking history, and we’re happy to contribute our research to the annals. Darts were thrown, billiards were played, and more than a few cocktails were spilled. Occasionally a shot of Malort was taken. After all that, we present our list of the best new bars in Chicago.
Our first thought walking into Lazy Bird is always, haven’t we been here before? Then we see the framed black-and-white photo of us behind the bar from New Year’s Eve 1963 and realize we never left. Tucked away in the basement of The Hoxton hotel in the West Loop, it’s the type of intimate mid-century lounge that might never have actually existed outside of a movie set. A beautiful marble bar serving updates on classic cocktails anchors the room, but there are plenty of dark shadows to slink back into if you’re trying to stay incognito for whatever reason.
Whether or not you buy the hype surrounding activated charcoal and CBD, the drink menu at Young American is as carefully thought-out as the space. Their spirit-free drinks might get the most attention, but there are plenty of great boozy cocktails too, as well as a special collaboration with Hopewell Brewing and a budget-friendly $6 beer and shot deal - there’s even a non-alcoholic restorative shot that your healthiest friend would drop big money on at Whole Foods. In addition to the wraparound bar, there’s a section of stadium seating, and the walls are covered with well-placed mirrors, neon signs, and the type of funky geometric art your parents were probably into in the ’90s. As for food, the “goth bread” looks like what Sauron would feed his dog, but it’s the best version of cheesy garlic bread we’ve had in a while.
When a place has a schtick - like, say, some sort of Hollywood-themed restaurant planet, or a cafe dedicated to hard rock - it can be difficult to judge it based on its merits rather than the experience it’s trying to create for you. Janitor’s Closet, located in an actual old custodial closet in the basement of a River North hotel, could easily fall into that trap. But the cocktails are genuinely interesting (okra vermouth shows up in a couple of drinks) and enjoyable enough that we’d point you toward them even if they were served in, let’s say, some sort of cafe in the rainforest.
Dorian’s is another bar that over-delivers on what could be a one-note concept. To get in you have to walk through a tiny record shop with a listening booth and vinyl for sale, but once you enter, the space inside is a high-ceilinged jazz club with a stage for live shows and DJ sets. There’s an impressive wall of vinyl, and the green leather, wood paneling, and gold trim everywhere makes it feel like Burt Reynolds’ basement. The rotating drink menu is fresh and thoughtful - for example, the Soylent, which comes with gin, Italicus, shisho, lemon, and zero-ABV Lagunitas. The only thing you should avoid here is the Turkey Dew, a Wild Turkey/Mountain Dew shot that still haunts our dreams.
Like a restaurant that’s dressed up as a bar for Halloween, Good Measure in River North is a fine place to drink and a great place to eat. You might come to take down a few Oaxacan Old Fashioneds, but you’re going to want to show up hungry - they put more care into their food menu here than most of the pricier restaurants in the neighborhood. Standouts include an excellent patty melt with foie gras caramelized onions, a juicy fried chicken with spicy honey butter, and some seasonal salads that are much better than the ones at your high-end lunch spot. Enjoy your feast with a Toki Highball under the oddly alluring red glow of the neon bar lights.
Another spot from the people behind Young American, Ludlow Liquors takes all the elements of a dive bar, then spruces them up into a more polished hangout. Their colorful back patio makes this place a solid addition to the neighborhood and to your summer rotation, and their menu is perfect for long days spent drinking with your friends. Drinks are served in either single or double pours so that you don’t have to commit to a full-sized cocktail if you suddenly decide you’re feeling mezcal instead of rum. They also have a full kitchen, Old Habits, which serves french fries with a ramekin of malted vanilla ice cream - an idea so simple yet so genius that we can’t believe we’re just coming across it now.
When you walk into Royal Palms, it feels like you’re on the deck of a photogenic cruise ship built for people born after the Carter administration. And if you can buy into that, you’re going to have a lot of fun. The courts are first come, first served and can get crazy on the weekends, but when you’re not playing there’s plenty of room for drinking house cocktails like the Shuffleboard Bob (which has a refreshing base of gin and coconut water) or playing the many other games scattered around the space. During the summer there’s a rooftop patio with a bar, a winner-stays-on shuffleboard court, and complimentary sunscreen. There’s also a door that opens up so you can place your order at rotating food trucks without leaving the premises - and the food here is way better than the heat lamp buffet on an actual cruise ship.
Three Dots And A Dash in River North can be pretty fun, but more often than not it feels like a tiki drink come to life: busy, loud, and way too much. The Bamboo Room, the new secluded bar inside Three Dots, solves that problem. Compared to the bustle of the main bar, it’s like you’ve got your own personal island cabana where you can sip drinks poured over shaved pineapple ice. The crowd is small and mellow, so your bartender will have enough time and energy to answer any questions you might have about vintage rums and Trader Vic (who, yes, was a real guy, but sadly has no relation to Trader Joe).
District Brew Yards takes the pour-your-own-beer fad and transports it to Chicagoans’ favorite setting: a brewery taproom. A collaborative production facility between Burnt City Brewing, Around The Bend, and Bold Dog, District has customer-operated taps for all three brewers, along with a fourth section for rotating experimental beers. If you’ve ever ordered a flight at a brewery and thought, “I wish that instead of four little beers, I had twelve tinier ones,” you can make that happen here. The whole place has a food hall vibe: big wooden tables perfect for getting work done or playing a board game with friends, and huge windows that open up onto Ashland that keep it from feeling too industrial inside. There’s also a full-service BBQ kitchen, so there’s really no excuse to leave until they close.