An intimate, dare I say, romantic River North wine bar, Swirl has the potential to appeal to a wide range of revelers. If you like wine and quiet conversation, but not wine bar snobbery, you’ll probably like Swirl. If you like live world jazz, but not the cover charges, you’ll probably like Swirl. If you like DJs spinning late night club music, but not the club scene thuggery, you’ll probably like Swirl. If, however, you like seeing blitzed beauticians from Beloit belting out off-key Bon Jovi ballads, you were probably looking for Howl at the Moon, just down the street.
Swirl casts a pretty low profile on an ever-crowded strip of Hubbard Street that contains no less than 15 restaurants, bars and clubs in a three-block stretch. Look for Swirl’s glass doors and simple black awning just west of Clark in a spot that in recent years has been the home to Wham Bongo Bar, Tapas Barcelona and Minx. Step through a small foyer and into a narrow, rectangular room dimly lit by candles and miniature chandeliers. The light-colored brick walls and unfinished ceiling give the place a minimalist look, but the acoustics are maximized by a series of strategically placed speakers. (Note: even during a live set, polite conversation was still easily accomplished.) Curved cocktail booths along the western wall give way to a few high tables before running into the floor-level performance space. A small dark bar running parallel to the tables and a comfy lounge space beyond the band/DJ area provide additional seating. This provides an intimate setting for about 50, with anyone else relegated to SRO status, and there’s not a lot of standing room to speak of. TVs are not on hand, so sit back and enjoy the show.
I know just enough about wine to get in trouble, so I won’t even pretend to give an impression of the wine list, but I think I can safely say that Swirl’s list will satisfy most oenophiles. There are about 20 selections available by the glass, offering a wide variety of varietals. There are also a number of flights to choose from in addition to their reserve list of wines available by the bottle. Plan on spending between $6-$12 a glass, while bottles are relatively reasonable but can go high enough to get any expense account audited. Blue-collar beer lovers will be disappointed, but others will appreciate a selection of 40 bottled craft and artisan beers from around the world. Swirl’s bar is strictly Top Shelf all the way, and I mean that literally. They don’t carry any call or house liquors to speak of. Swirl offers a small menu of gourmet pizzas, salads, small plates and cheese plates and keeps the kitchen open until last call for those with the post-midnight munchies. On Tuesdays, you’ll find $3 tastings and $10 flights and look for specials on the house sangria, which was none too shabby.
Swirl is open five nights a week, from Tuesday through Saturday, and you’ll find live music featured on all of them. Performances feature a range of jazz vocalists, as well as Latin, Samba and Flamenco acts. There’s no cover, but there is a stated two-drink minimum. During my visit, however, this was not enforced in any visible way. That changes after 10pm on Fridays and Saturdays, when Swirl transforms into a micro club, staying open until 4am and 5am respectively. There is a $10 cover for these DJ-driven events, which sometimes also feature live acts. But here’s a Chicago Bar Project tip: check Swirl’s website for printable coupons and RSVP opportunities that offer free or reduced entry. Pre-club, look for a crowd that crosses the map in terms of age, background and zip code. It’s a nice spot for a first date or a double date, but groups of more than four will find suitable space a challenge. Post-club, potential guests should heed Swirl’s fairly elitist requirements: “Respectable Attire Required” and “Elite Only Need Apply.”
If you’re looking for a place for a romantic rendezvous, to catch some smooth jazz or listen to the bump, bump, bump ’til dawn, Swirl has you covered. If you like Swirl, you might want to raise your glass at The Tasting Room, Rootstock or 404 Wine Bar. For more information, including monthly wine tasting schedules, check out the Swirl Wine Bar website. Until next time, In vino veritas. (“In wine [there is] truth”)