Editor’s note: the Big Downtown closed and is being transformed into a parking garage as part of the Palmer House renovation. Sadly, this means the Loop has lost one of its best after-work bars. Fortunately, Poag Mahone’s opened nearby on Wells.
It’s not downtown, it’s the Big Downtown. For some reason, it reminds me of 3rd Rock from the Sun: “When you think of giant heads, think of the Big Giant Head.” Aside from that bit of esoteric nonsense, the Big Downtown represents one of the best after work bars in the Loop, giving nearby Miller’s Pub, Exchequer Pub and the Elephant & Castle chain a run for their money. Add to that its location in the base of my favorite Chicago hotel and its ode to the Chicago El, and you’ve got a no-brainer spot for beers and cocktails when your work day is done.
In Carl Sandburg’s “City of Big Shoulders,” the Big Downtown is not to be confused with the Hyatt’s “Big Bar,” and other “big” bars: Big City Tap, Big Joe’s and Big Chicks. The Big Downtown can be found—where else?—downtown in Chicago’s Loop, on the east side of Wabash Avenue between Adams and Monroe, and is impossible to miss with its brightly colored and well lit marquis. As you can see upon first glance, the Big Downtown has an Art Deco theme to it, as if it were a bar straight out of the 1940s. This explains the three dimensional, old-fashioned Chicago El car above the front door and the advertising for whatever drink specials they’ve got going at the time. French windows that do not open out in warmer times face the spacious sidewalk café with its metal partition highlighted with potted plants, and its plethora of tables and chairs nestled under blue awnings as if to shield you from what little sun shines between the buildings and the El tracks that run directly over Wabash.
The main entrance to Big Downtown can be found through the pair of wooden double-doors on Wabash. There’s also a rear entrance from the Palmer House itself – there you’ll enter the establishment by the bathrooms, and head down to the bar via a long carpeted hallway with comfortable booths encased in wood that also feature nicely framed paintings of Chicago and the odd statue. At the opposite end of hallway is the revolving door and plate glass door leading out to Wabash, just past the merchandise counter. The sign on the back door says, “Proper Attire Required,” but the reality is quite casual, though you’ll see many middle-aged men in sportcoats and khakis.
The (big) wooden bar at the Big Downtown matches the floor and runs along the north wall, opposite a large room filled with cocktail tables. Here, they serve up a good selection of martinis and microbrews, and are one of the few bars in town to offer Smithwick’s on tap. Of particular note, which is immensely satisfying to those of us here at the Chicago Bar Project, is that the Big Downtown offers “beer towers” that hold 10 pints in a manner very similar to the tappers at the Lion Head Pub, located further north in Lincoln Park. The Big Downtown also has a version for the ladies, or perhaps for those of us at lunch, referred to as the “half tower,” which only holds five pints. Once you reach the lower “floors” of the tower, the little two-car train that is somewhat El-like and which circles the room above on green tracks, suspended by green El trestle-like bars, becomes more and more fascinating just as the one circling overhead at D’Agostino’s does in Wrigleyville. The same effect can be had as you start to see the bottom of your 40-ounce Cosmopolitan, for those with a more sophisticated palate but not too sophisticated as to shy away from ordering a big-ass drink. For those of you out-of-towners, if you’re at the bar and see some beers your’e not familiar with, just ask for a sample and you’ll likely find the bartenders accommodating. Unless you are from St. Louis.
The large, open kitchen at the west end of the main room shines of stainless steel and churns out standard pub grub selections at relatively high prices, including burgers for around $10, pizza, salads, and quesadillas. More upscale selections range in price between $15-$30 and include pork chops, ribs, salmon, crab-stuffed shrimp, steaks, and crème brûlée for dessert, all of which is available until 11:30pm nightly. Many visitors seem to laud the steaks, which I find surprising considering that you have far better options like Gibson’s, Morton’s and Ditka’s just a five minute cab ride away. Service can be inattentive and smoking is not permitted throughout the entire place.
The Big Downtown makes an attempt at a sort-of swanky opulence, but it comes across as a bit Disney-esque and sterile, though one can appreciate the spotlessness. As always, the lifeblood of any good joint is the people. The “restaurant” area (row of booths in the back) is rather quiet and subdued, but the crowd up front is quite lively in the barroom from about 5-9pm and provides the most entertainment – that is, aside from the more traditional array of televisions supplemented by live blues on Wednesdays, the latter of which presumably is to attract the hotel crowd. If you need a place to go before the theatre on Saturday night, the Big Downtown is a good choice, as is the Italian Village and Nick’s Fishmarket. In recognition of its achievements, the Big Downtown was awarded Best Hotel Bar by The Official Chicago Bar Guide (2001) and is my favorite after work bar in the Loop. Until your next beer tower at the Big Downtown, just remember the words of the legendary Chicagoan Daniel Burnham: “Make no small plans.”