For any number of reasons—i.e. sky-high prices, 1980s décor, weak beer selection, getting a printed receipt with every order—hotel bars are rarely A-List destinations for savvy locals. Sable Kitchen & Bar is a notable exception. With a stylish setting, endless drink menu, including one of the largest collections of “amber spirits” in Chicago, beautifully crafted food and cocktails and a crowd of beautiful people to match, Sable is one hotel bar I can highly recommend, even if there’s no room key in your pocket or expense account at hand. And I’ve been back several times to prove it.
Sable Kitchen & Bar is located adjacent to the newly built Kimpton Hotel Palomar in the heart of River North at State & Illinois. Opened in April 2010, Sable easily ranks among the longest venues in town (eat your heart out, Long Room), with the picture windows along the southern wall, spanning almost a city block. Guests enter the elongated bar area, with a small lounge area in front and assorted glass cocktail tables and display cases opposite the bar. Additional seating is accomplished along the 40-foot bar, where the Mixologist workstations are accented by radiant quartz lightboxes and flanked by two laser cut backlights that underscore Sable’s futuristic, yet 1940s inspired, vibe. A digital fireplace marks the hostess station where you can gain access to the dark wood-toned dining area with its views of the semi-open kitchen or the overflow dining/cocktail area that’s a virtual cab ride from the front door. While the washrooms are located in the hotel lobby, nothing else about Sable gives even the most remote hint that you’re anywhere near a hotel. Well, they do serve breakfast, but more on that later.
Most places have a drink list. Sable has a drink “library”. Made up of two separate menus, cocktails and spirits, the drink offerings are truly something to behold—if you have 30 minutes to kill. For those who have trouble making decisions, asking your Mixologist (led by head bartender Mike Ryan formerly of Violet Hour) for a recommendation is probably the safest course. The 18 page cocktail list has over five dozen concoctions ranging from modern favorites to old-school classics that were in vogue when Hugh Heffner was still part of the Chicago nightlife scene. Home-made syrups, bitters and specially made ice highlight the expert craftsmanship that goes into each drink. Perfection does have its price and in this case it’s $13 a pop, no matter which cocktail you order. The massive wall of booze behind the bar is testament to Sable’s claim of having one of the largest amber spirits collections around. The 20-page spirit guide offers up to 121 single malt scotches (rivaling the beloved Lakeview neighborhood treasure Duke of Perth), 19 blends, 82 American whiskies (bourbon, rye, etc.), and another two dozen whiskies from Ireland, Japan, India and beyond. Tequila aficionados will find nearly four dozen varieties. Rum fans have 35 to choose from. And lest fans of clear spirits feel left out, Sable also serves up 27 kinds of gin, plus several brands of genever, gin’s Dutch cousin.
For those that prefer something lighter, 16 wines are offered by the glass with a reserve collection of around five dozen selections chosen by Kimpton Hotel’s aptly named Master Sommelier Emily Wines. And yes, there’s beer too: two dozen bottled and large format selections and six beers on tap, including low-brow Schlitz for an eyebrow-raising $5. (Someone at Sable has a sense of humor.) The drinks here are pretty special, but they’re not on special, so don’t go waving a $20 at the bartender if you’re paying cash. That’s just not going to cut it.
As required by any hotel restaurant, Sable is open for both breakfast and lunch, but I’m not even going there. For dinner, chef Heather Terhune’s (Atwood Café) menu features a social dining concept with most items available in half or full portions. This includes hors d’ oeuvres, fish, meat and “garden” plates that start at as little as $3, with flatbreads and entrées ranging from $12-$35. I have been to Sable for cocktails and dessert and will tell you that the dark chocolate whoopie pies with a vanilla bean milkshake were good enough to make me want to come back and start with the appetizers.
As mentioned, you’ll find more actual Chicagoans in attendance at Sable than you will at your average hotel bar. This is by no means your typical den of desperation and is filled with trend-setting lads and lasses to prove it. Feel free to leer at the provocatively dressed ladies. Just be prepared for a sneer in response. Finding a seat in the front bar on weekends is no easy task, and this is one place where you’ll want a seat to enjoy the full experience. Expect an affluent, if slightly mature, crowd that can afford Sable’s affluent prices. A t-shirt and shorts here won’t get you kicked out, but it will make you feel underdressed. Sable’s bar is open until midnight Monday-Wednesday, 2am Thursday-Saturday and 11pm on Sundays.
When price is no object, Sable’s stellar liquor selection, setting and service give you little reason to object. If you like Sable, you might want to shake it on over to Violet Hour, Whistler or maybe Weegee’s. For more info, check out Sable’s website. Here’s mud in your eye.