The Best Cocktail Bars In River North

10 spots for when a regular ol’ martini just won’t do.
The Best Cocktail Bars In River North image

photo credit: Pops For Champagne

When you hear “drinks in River North,” your mind probably jumps to sceney spots with $20 vodka sodas, pubs filled with drunk tourists, or Happy Hours spent crushed between groups of vest-sporting tech employees and financiers. But as manufactured and stale as spots in this neighborhood can be, there are a handful of places with more character than Stanley Tucci’s filmography that serve creative cocktails. Here are 10 great bars—many of them hiding in alleys, hotel lobbies, and even inside other bars—for the next time you want something beyond swapping your usual bourbon for rye in an Old Fashioned.


photo credit: The Drifter


River North

$$$$Perfect For:Drinking Good CocktailsDrinks & A Light BiteDate Night
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Located underneath the century-old Green Door Tavern, The Drifter is a tiny dive-like speakeasy with Prohibition-era style, complete with burlesque performances on a small stage and an old American flag hanging above the bar. But expect a wait and a $7 cover before you enter using a door knob on a shelf full of tchotchkes. The drink menu adds to the mystique by changing every day, and cocktail names are printed on individual tarot cards. Is it kitschy? Yes. Does it make for an entertaining night with built-in conversation starters? Also yes.

This cocktail lounge is from the same people behind Tanta, but while Tanta is Peruvian, the food and drinks next door at Arbella are from all over the place. The map-like cocktail list reads like something you’d use to find Carmen Sandiego, with drinks inspired by places like Philadelphia (dark rum, pimento spiced liqueur, and a whole egg), Peru (pisco, guava-basil vodka, and ginger beer), and the North Pole (fernet menta, lemon, and chocolate chip cookie syrup milk). Big booths make it a comfortable place to hang with friends, but the bar and dark, candlelit tables in the back are great for showing off your knowledge of 4th-grade geography on a first date.

photo credit: Lettuce Entertain You



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Three Dots And A Dash is a (usually) crowded tiki bar located in the alley behind Bub City. There’s patio seating in warmer weather, but take the stairs down to a year-round beach party that serves tropical cocktails in mugs shaped like pineapples, conch shells, and mermaids. Drinks like the $425 “Treasure Chest,” a Venezuelan rum-passion fruit-guava-tangerine-dry ice concoction for 6-8 people border on being over-the-top, but the single-serve cocktails are reasonable and the atmosphere is fun without screaming “spring break.” Reserve a table to ensure some space.

photo credit: Lettuce Entertain You

Cocktail served in a glass pufferfish sitting on a platform with dry ice

The Bamboo Room



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The Bamboo Room is concealed behind some curtains near the host stand at Three Dots And A Dash, and has equally outrageous drink presentations. But the menu is completely different, so this small bar-within-a-bar deserves its own entry on this guide. The more expensive drinks here tend to be fruit-forward but well-balanced, like “The Pretty One,” which arrives in a terrarium filled with shells, fake plants, and dry ice. And because The Bamboo Room only has a few high-tops and barstools, the bartenders have more time to guide you through the rum and rhum agricole cocktails.

photo credit: Emilia Czader

Another cocktail bar in an alley, Bar Sotano is located behind Frontera Grill and owned by the same team. "Sotano'' translates to basement, but unlike where you once hung out drinking Rolling Rock you stole from your brother, here you and your friends can have fantastic mezcal cocktails and unique takes on margaritas involving unexpected ingredients like carrots or peanuts. The complex tacos al pastor made with chorizo-infused mezcal is like sipping a margarita while chewing on a taco. It’s funky and strange in the best way, and as with the other drinks, you’ll keep drinking to figure out what the hell is going on.

This mid-century-looking lounge in The Acme Hotel has great classic cocktails. But if you’re a rebellious, liquor-drinking trailblazer, get the Dealer’s Choice. There are no complex menu descriptions to parse—you just tell the friendly bartenders the spirit, flavor profile, and glass you want. And while it might take a while to get your drink (sit at the small bar for a faster alcohol-to-mouth pipeline), the result is usually good. Come early in the evening, before the dark nooks and low tables are filled with people trying to impress their party with a tolerance for something strong and stirred when they secretly wish the drink was sweet and sour. 

Bar Goa is a clubby cocktail bar and restaurant from the folks behind Rooh, perfect for when you’re in the mood for drinks with a subwoofer. The food is Indian with Portuguese influences, and so are the tropical and refreshing cocktails. There are options like ginger whiskey and mulled wine, or the “ChicaGOAN handshake”—your opportunity to try feni, a pungent cashew brandy and Goa’s version of Malört. Weeknights tend to be mellow and great for Happy Hour, while a brunchtime cocktail session involves a DJ and people shout-talking about how much they love their mango sangria.

Unsurprisingly, champagne is the focus at this wine bar that’s been around since 1982. And while most people come here for Happy Hours filled with glasses of rosé or post-dinner dates to argue the merits of brut vs. extra brut, we like grabbing a seat at the large bar and trying one of the bubbly cocktails. Get some charcuterie or fries to go with your prosecco blood orange negroni, or really go all out with some caviar and pretend you’re a wealthy divorcée.

Watershed is the rare speakeasy that doesn’t have an air of exclusivity. It’s another bar-within-a-bar easily located in Pops For Champagne, and bartenders will fist-bump you while talking about the origins of the bourbon in your experimental cocktail. One of those might include white port, bitters, peaflower, and Sprite. Another might be more straightforward like a mezcal grapefruit margarita…with Malört. The menu changes regularly, and every season focuses on a different TV show, like The Good Place or Sex And The City. A night at Watershed depends a lot on the “season” and the crowd—but it’s worth taking a chance on this spot for the novelty and creative cocktails.

This small bar in the back of the Freehand Hotel smells like incense and sounds like spring break, and there will probably be at least one couple trying to recapture the thrill of a vacation fling. You’ll find tropical cocktails and a disco ball spinning inside what’s basically an ‘80s tiki hut. Sounds weird, but between the atmosphere, people watching, and decent drinks (which do lean sweet), it makes for a fun date option. At the very least, it’s a good place to stop in for a cocktail where you won’t spend the entire time staring at your phone.

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