Photography by diffordsguide.com
Words by Simon Difford on 27-Mar-2015
955 West Fulton Market, (corner N. Morgan St), Chicago, Illinois, 60607, United States
Website: View bar's website
Hours: Weds-Sun from 6pm
Door: Make reservation
Style: Cocktail bar
Price guide: High-end
Food: Bar nibbles
Owned by: Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas
Aviary is unlike any other bar you're likely to have visited - there's no bar, no bartenders and no bottles on display. Drinks are made back-of-house, then served in a restaurant setting, with restaurant formalities. It is very formal. Dare I say, a tad poncy.
You arrive at a standing wait area right next to the kitchen with floor to ceiling 'caging' separating the guests from the preparation area. (The caging has given rise to a popular understanding of why the restaurant is called Aviary - though actually they were looking for a title that phonetically chimed with its sister restaurant Alinea).
Instead of bartenders, Aviary boasts chefs, working to a strict kitchen regimen worthy of Escoffier. Each chef on the rota is restricted to just five or so drinks each. And rather than using one shaker, rinsing it, then using it again, at Aviary there are some 250 tins, so chefs take a fresh one from a stack in a well, and kitchen porters collect the stacks of spent ones to wash up. Drinks are made not at a bar, but a large table which has integrated wells for equipment and ingredients, refrigerated drawers and slots for garbage below.
The kitchen includes an ice room where some 40 different kinds of ice are kept. There's numerous flavours of ice, hollow ice spheres and custom ice moulds. Separately, a huge blast freezer serves as a glass chiller, and there are two enormous Clinebell ice machines, chilling and circulating water to create perfectly clear ice.
When their table is ready, guests are led through to the main area 76-seat lounge. Resembling a formal restaurant, the long plush room is divided and made more intimate by high back groupings of crescent-shaped seats. Banquet seating sweeps around round tables opposite scallop-shaped swivel chairs. The space is modern in design and luxurious in feel. It's seating only - no standing.
Floor staff are carefully briefed about all the drinks, their ingredients, how they are made and presented, though their role is more analogous to a waiter making a recommendation in a restaurant than the repartee you expect between a bartender and his customer. The service is friendly and very attentive -overly so at times.
Eighteen cocktails occupy the second page of the eight page concertina menu with the soaring birds on the first page aligned to each cocktail, the relative position of bird to drink indicating the style of each cocktail. The further the bird is away from the name so the more intricate that cocktail is. Perhaps not as helpful as knowing how sweet, strong, long or indeed how good a drink is but it's a clever indicator all the same.
Gasps of 'wow', 'ooh' and 'ah' can be heard as the theatrical cocktails are delivered to the guests' tables, each concoction, more bizarre than the last. But how does the drink taste? The servers seek a critically assertive reply after delivering every drink and accompanying dish. We found the drinks on the sweet side. I can only describe one dish as being gloopy. In our opinion there's a touch of 'emperor's new clothes' to people's assessment of the cocktails at Aviary.
We recommend avoiding the formality of the above. Instead head to The Office, a speakeasy style bar hidden near the restrooms in the basement below. Accessing the main bar upstairs is a breeze - book ahead or just walk-in. However, The Office is a different matter and unless you want to book for a private party (it holds 26) you'll need to be invited or know someone who knows someone.