Images of Chicago’s past bring to mind gangsters wearing fedoras, carrying tommy guns, and drinking illicit cocktails in back-alley speakeasies where entrance is gained only through knowing the right people.
The Violet Hour captures a bit of that mystery and nostalgia, and it also heralds a new era in nightlife nationwide. Cuisine has been elevated to an art from, and now cocktails are reaching for new heights and encouraging increasingly sophisticated palettes.
You won’t come upon TVH, as it’s being called on the foodie group LTHforum, by accident. There are no signs and the number’s unlisted. Even though I had the address, on a recent evening my friend and I walked up and down Damen like we were a couple of lost tourists (not a bad thing as such, except for the fact that I’m supposed to know where everything is!).
We were just about to give up when a svelte man in a nicely cut suit emerged from what seemed to be a boarded up building. He asked us, in a very Lurch-like manner, if we were looking for The Violet Hour. After looking at each other and exchanging an unspoken “How weird,” we followed him in. I noticed immediately the “No cell phones please” sign and was greatly appreciative. (At a recent visit to the Underground Wonder Bar a decidedly obnoxious patron was asked to desist her cell useage or leave.)
Lurch – OK, I won’t call him that. He was much more articulate and attractive than that. He was smooth and polished and deferential in a butler sort of way. Anyway, Jeeves (that sounds so much better) apologized for the lack of seats at the bar and offered us our choice of high-back chairs with low tables in the front room or high-back booths in the back. We chose a booth.
Normally a couple would instantly be offered a secluded spot. The ambience of the seating away from the bar seems designed for romance and intimacy. So I knew I was in for a different nightlife experience when the bar was offered as the premier seating. I consider myself a bar person – for one, I’m closer to the liquor, and two, it’s easier to develop a relationship with the person taking care of me, and I prefer to be a person and not just a tip.
I’m betting TVH considers bar seating premium for another reason. You get to watch the magic happen.
Toby Maloney, the Head Intoxologist, set out to create a drinking experience. He’s designed a menu of elaborate cocktails that require a similar discipline to create as an upscale restaurant’s offerings. All the bitters are made in-house. The Iron Cross is topped with an egg white foam. The Spanish Margarita’s Hell-fire bitters give just enough heat to soften the sweetness of Liqueur 43. The Blue Ridge Manhattan has a rinse of Laphroig, which gives it a masculine smokiness without being overpowering. The Hemingway Daiquiri made me reconsider grapefruit – and I hate grapefruit.
If the devil’s in the details, then hell, they’ve got nothin’ to worry about.
There are 8 kinds of ice. Seriously. If your drink’s served in a tall collins glass, it gets a “shard” – 5 1/2 inches long and an inch wide. The Margarita had a block of chunk ice. According to a post on eGullet, Toby said it’s “double filtered water put in special hotel pans and then carved by a woodworker into icebergs for anything on the rocks. This ice is at least 2 degrees below 0 F. It sticks to your fingers almost like your tongue to a flagpole in January.”
And don’t ask for bottled water. Not necessary. They triple-filter theirs and it’s served chilled in glass bottles with rubber-rimmed stoppers.
So the drinks are great, the ice is cold, and the water’s pure. What about the service, right? Stellar. Pleasant, attentive, and knowledgeable. Slow, but they make you aware of that up front since this ain’t exactly a shot and a beer type place. Rome wasn’t built in a day, yada yada yada. It takes time to make these cocktails just right, and they’re perfectionists, just like a chef at, say, Alinea.
Which brings me to the clientele. I’d actually never heard of TVH, but my friend is a chef at Alinea and had heard about the great cocktails. We were just about done with our first drink when another chef and his girlfriend arrived. We chatted with them for awhile, and just as we were leaving more of the staff walked in. They are at the top of their game – Alinea is considered one of the best restaurants in the country and the accolades stretch from coast to coast. A place like The Violet Hour speaks to them in a language they understand. As Toby said, “Foodies become Drinkies faster than anyone else.”
If the people who create the food that fills up reservation books for months decide that TVH is the place to go, it’s a good bet that they’re offering something special. And at $11 a cocktail, you don’t have to save up for six months to enjoy.
You won’t need a password to get in. You won’t even need to know “Jeeves” real name. Just pace up and down Damen across from Pontiac Cafe (or look for the line on the weekends) and wait for him to appear.
The Violet Hour, 1520 N Damen
p.s. The name comes from a literary reference from T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” and Bernard DeVoto’s ode to the martini, “The Hour.”
Recently named “America’s Most Exciting New Bar” by Food & Wine