Drinking is easy. Finding the right bar, not so easy. We’re here to help. As a public service to all of you thirsty explorers, every week we highlight the best bars in America and tell you what makes them so damn great. This week we’ve got a bar that technically doesn’t even have a bar.
NAME: The Aviary
LOCATION: Fulton Market, Chicago
ON THE JUKEBOX: Beach House, The xx, Future Islands
WHAT TO ORDER (NEWBIES): 3-course cocktail tasting menu
WHAT TO ORDER (REGULARS): the seasonal “Porthole” cocktail
WHY WE LOVE IT: Every cocktail is a riff off of a handful of classic drinks. If you visit a lot of bars, you begin to spot the patterns, the repetition, the tired variations of old fashioneds and gimlets. But at The Aviary in Chicago, drinks are being played with in ways that you won’t see anywhere else. Here, presentation is an art form: cocktails are served to your table in beakers suspended over Bunsen burners, or in glass-sided canteens, or encapsulated in an egg made of ice.
The bar is so progressive, in fact, that beverage director Micah Melton doesn’t even refer to it as a bar. “There’s no actual bar,” he says. “We look at it more like a fine dining place. You sit at a table and have a server just like you would in a restaurant. You order a drink from the menu and it’s made in the kitchen and then comes out on a tray.” And like in a real kitchen, the bartenders work behind-the-scenes, on a line. So instead of having to make all two-dozen complicated drinks on the menu each night, bartenders work at stations and are in charge of only four. This keeps the recipes and presentations consistent, important factors considering many people order by showing the server a photo of a drink they’ve seen on Instagram.
While à la carte cocktails are available, The Aviary is most known for its restaurant-style tasting menus, including a special seven-course cocktail menu available exclusively for those sitting at the Kitchen Table (the bar’s version of a chef’s table). Most of those drinks are low proof and some of them are half-size. “We aren’t serving you seven Old Fashioneds; we’re smart about,” Melton says. “Ninety-five percent of the people who drink the menu are good to go at the end. It’s the same thing as at a restaurant: We’d rather you drink or eat three-quarters of something and be happy than be falling over.”
The Kitchen Table is also where the bartenders test out their new drinks and presentations. Melton, who got his start as The Aviary’s “ice chef,” travels frequently to gather inspiration from new techniques and glassware around the world. Over the past year he’s visited Madrid, Amsterdam, Rome, London, Boston and many other cities, and he’s happy to see that cocktail tasting menus are catching on everywhere. “That’s the kind of thing I want to do when I go to a place,” Melton says. “I just want to sit down and have people show me what they’re interested in. I’m not an expert in what they can do, so it’s always cool to let them be the guide.” And at The Aviary, he is happy to be yours.
Alyson Sheppard is the resident hangover specialist at Playboy.com. Find her on Twitter: @amshep