Who better to recommend the best bars in any given city than the people who spend more time in them than anyone else? Welcome to our Best Bars in the United States series, where we’ve asked our favorite bartenders in the nation to select their most beloved drinking establishments in their city.
We’re all guilty of getting stuck in a rut, visiting the same old bars we’re used to. But now it’s time for a little inspiration by way of Chicago’s leading bartenders. Where do they go post-shift when they’re looking to wind down? What’s the best place for a simple pour or an all-out cocktail? Who has the best ambiance that will make you forget you’re in Chicago? We asked 11 of the best bartenders in Chicago to give you all of the answers.
Kevin Beary has been the beverage director at The Bamboo Room at Three Dots and a Dash for the past seven-plus years, including when it was named one of the best bars in America. “It is hard to single out one bar, but for me it is probably The Duck Inn,” he says. “Brandon Phillips and Kevin Hickey have perfected the elevated local bar vibe. The bar is stocked with a well-curated selection of interesting spirits and a focused list of inventive cocktails by Brandon. In addition to the drinks, the plates coming from the kitchen make this spot the perfect Sunday hang.”
Tia Barrett has worked across Chicago fine dining institutions including Alinea and Entente and joined the opening team at Esme, which earned a Michelin star in 2022, its first year in operation. When she’s not working as Esme’s beverage director, she heads to Pops for Champagne. “Their wine list is ever-changing, and I can always find something that I have never had before,” she says. “Michael, their wine buyer, is so approachable in helping a new face navigate through their list. They also feature some fun cocktails, La Vie en Rose being my favorite with their cheese curds!”
Keith Meicher has served drinks at some of Chicago’s best bars, including Maude’s and Scofflaw, and has been beverage director at Sepia since 2016. “My heart will always belong to The Whistler,” he says. “They’re part of the first wave of places to establish themselves in the mid/late-aughts craft cocktail renaissance, and they’ve never lost a step. And as important as they are to the Chicago cocktail scene, they’re also a venue for the hippest people in the local music and art community to come explore their craft. It’s where I had my first ever cocktail; it’s where I learned to drink like an adult. Many bars are great but The Whistler is the greatest.”
Agustina Sofo has tended bar at El Che Steakhouse & Bar for more than a year and previously worked as the bar manager of Victor Bar and Love Street in Lincoln Park. For her, the best bar in Chicago is Sparrow on Elm Street. “Even though it is located in a neighborhood I don’t find myself in often, there are many factors that make it worth traveling to the Gold Coast for,” she says. “Their selection of rums is very impressive, and what the bartenders can do with them is even better. The atmosphere of lowlights and good salsa music is something that I look for while enjoying a night out. The bartenders have always been very welcoming and willing to share their knowledge and are always down for a chat.”
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Maharlika Erickson is beverage director at Nisos Prime, and her experience also includes working as head bartender at Garage in Austin, TX, Billy Sunday, Dusek’s, The Queen Mary Tavern and Table, Donkey and Stick. Her favorite bar in Chicago is The Green Mill. “It’s an iconoclastic love letter to music and nightlife, an institution that indomitably possesses much of what bars worldwide have strived and failed to attain,” she says. “Catching Soul Message’s set on a Sunday is a spiritual experience. Cash only, no frills, excellent service. One leaves hoping that some essence of the place will linger in the mind until the next visit.”
Kyle Davidson earned years of experience from Blackbird, Elske and Giant before taking on the beverage director role at West Loop hot spot Rose Mary. “Delilah’s brings many worlds together and does them all authentically,” he says. “I’ve stopped by for many reasons — to grab the drinks on special and drink cheaply for the night, play pool and listen to punk records, check out the esoteric movie selection, or, more frequently, to peruse the vast whiskey list. Their vintage beer tasting day each year is amazing, with flights of everything from Bourbon County Stout to obscure Gueze.”
Estefania Bermudez was the sommelier and wine director at S.K.Y. and briefly worked at All Together Now before joining the Mi Tocaya Antojeria team as beverage director in April 2021. When she’s not busy developing and managing the wine and agave program at Mi Tocaya, she loves sitting at the bar at Longman and Eagle. “From the extensive spirits (whiskey!) to its significance within the Chicago restaurant community, I can get lost there in the mornings after a crazy work week or on my days off,” she says. “Additionally, the food, cocktails and wine always hit the spot. You just feel happy and safe when you’re there!”
Emily Ford, an NYC native, has worked at several different bars across Chicago, including 25 Degrees and Machine: Engineered Dining and Drink before landing at Time Out Market Chicago where she is a bartender and mixologist. “Scofflaw is one of my favorite places to enjoy high-quality cocktails in Chicago, through and through,” she says. “Whether celebrating a special occasion or meeting with friends for some well-curated drinks, the atmosphere at Scofflaw allows you to make it what you want and adhere to their cozy dimly-lit ambiance in comfort. The quality of service and ingredients has been consistent over the years, and I love that it is a gin-focused bar that still offers a unique variety of spirits. But perhaps one of my favorite things about this bar is that they are never opposed to creating well-crafted, personalized mocktails for those who enjoy N/A options, which allows everyone to enjoy their experience without question or judgment.”
Erica Long has bartended at Mordecai and The Emily Hotel and acted as a cocktail consultant for Grapes & Grains before leading the food and beverage program at Pendry Chicago. “Kumiko in the West Loop is an absolute must,” she says. “Their gracious hospitality and attention to detail are top-notch, and when you visit you’ll see why they hold the number 25 spot on The World’s Best Bars list.”
Abe Vucekovich has bartended at The Cabana Club and Cherry Circle Room, was lead bartender at The Violet Hour and now oversees the beverage program for Meadowlark, Union and Lardon. “Queen Mary checks all the boxes of what I’m looking for — intimate settings, fantastic cocktails that are very well balanced in a modern classic way without being afraid to push the envelope, and staff that is always excited to see you and make you a drink no matter who you are,” he says.
Chris Hamm has two decades of experience working in the hospitality, wine and spirits industry in Chicago, Georgia and Australia and is now beverage director at Soif Wine Lounge. “For years, Billy Sunday has been my go-to cocktail experience,” he says. “Their drinks are imaginative, balanced and delicious without being fussy. They have an outstanding amaro selection, and their staff is so knowledgeable and welcoming.”
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