All that glitters isn’t gold, but Gilt Bar certainly sparkles. Since it opened in February 2010, Gilt Bar has been among River North’s trendiest spots—and with good reason. With its rustic-retro look, see-and-be-seen atmosphere, homey-gourmet “cookery,” and appreciation for the art of the cocktail, Gilt Bar raises the bar for the competition.
In recent years, Hubbard Street has, quite literally, become the de facto hub of the River North food & drink scene. Gilt Bar expands the strip west, with its location beneath the shadows of the Merchandise Mart at Franklin. Out front, stenciled windows promise “quality liquor” at “popular prices.” And beneath the classic black awning, you’ll often find a nattily dressed doorman, an adjective not normally used for members of that profession.
Step inside to a large, marble-floored room, punctuated by wooden columns and a constellation of hanging lights that combine to produce about 40 watts of illumination. (Interesting diversion: it’s so dark in Gilt Bar and the menu script so small, you can accurately guess the age of fellow patrons by observing how closely they hold the menu to their face. I could almost kiss mine.) An elegant service bar, with room for a dozen, sits to the right of the entrance and hostess stand. Thick wooden bench-style tables provide much of the seating, with leather loveseats and lounge furniture interspersed to provide room for cocktailing. The semi-open kitchen, wrapped in worn metal plates, sits in back. The food, drink and atmosphere are the highlights here, so if you’re in need of a TV or other diversion, Gilt Bar ain’t that kind of bar. Or is it? For a more intimate cocktail setting, Gilt Bar has a little secret: Curio, the unadvertised, candle-lit, speakeasy-esque, cash-only, drink-only lounge located in the depths of the basement. Indiana Jones himself would be impressed if you can find it… and so will your date.
Gilt Bar’s house cocktail menu is relatively short in profile, but long in quality. Drinks like the Pimm’s cup, sidecar and pisco sour harken back to a bygone era, so have a delectable sip, close your eyes and pretend you’re an extra in Boardwalk Empire. Whether you fancy scotch (20), whiskey (13), bourbon (13), tequila (10), gin (16), rum (12) or an aperitif/digestif, Gilt Bar caters to all tastes, but unless you want to drop $20 on a scotch check the drink list before ordering. Table wine at $4 a glass adds a home-style touch and there are also over a dozen wines available by the glass in addition to a full wine list. The beer list strives for the highest quality (almost) all the way, offering 11 drafts, 21 bottles, 10 large format selections and a “Hoffman” of PBR for $2.
With co-owner Brendan Sodikoff and executive chef Jason Vaughn (a protege of Alain Ducasse and Thomas Keller) at the helm, Gilt Bar brings quite a culinary pedigree and the foodies have found this place in numbers. I’d like to be able to give a full account of the seemingly delectable menu, but on two impromptu visits, I’ve encountered wait times of 2.5 and 3 hours. So, the moral of the story is to make reservations, several days in advance if you want to score a seat during primetime. The full menu is available from the cocktail seating, but eating dinner with the food situated below knee level isn’t good for my digestion, or my back. As my stomach rumbled, I watched and smelled an assortment of (rather sizable) small plate dishes being brought to the lucky diners, including several built around loaves of fresh-baked bread and a number of dishes featuring pork—a young female of the species is often referred to as a gilt pig. Perhaps the most surprising thing on the menu is that there’s scarcely a dish over $20. No wonder a table is so hard to snag.
If your night vision is good, you’ll find an assortment of 20-40-somethings clogging those tables—most wearing something black and virtually none who would order a Hoffman of PBR without being intentionally ironic. Occasional celebrity sightings are also a possibility, adding to the buzz, but the general set-up seems best suited for mingling with friends rather than making new ones. Gilt Bar is open Tuesday-Saturday from 4:45pm until “late,” which includes the kitchen, a welcome alternative to post-midnight gyros and burritos. A small sidewalk patio draws a crowd in summer.
For an enlightened cocktail and cuisine experience, Gilt Bar rises above the din, if not the dim. If you like Gilt Bar, make room on your calendar for Longman & Eagle, Publican or maybe Revolution Brewing. For more information, visit Gilt Bar’s noisy and whimsical website, or better yet, plan an in-person visit. In the meantime, bottoms up old boy.