Maude's Liquor Bar feels like the illegitimate child of a French bistro and a speakeasy. There are glimpses of French design—the scrollwork on the mirror, the typography on the menu—but the space, especially the upstairs cocktail lounge, is pure secret sin. Walking up the narrow stairs, and it feels like you should have to knock and give a password to get in. Maude's has managed the difficult feat of creating a space that is both abuzz with raucous happy-hour activity and intimate at the same time, while serving up a menu of drinks that will make any cocktail lover drool.
Loud, hip bars make this cocktail writer uncomfortable—I want to sit and sip, preferably with a great book or a fast-talking companion, not see and be seen. With rare aplomb, Maude's allows for both. When I visited, the restaurant was completely packed, the main bar 3-deep with drink-addled patrons. But my 2-top in the front of the restaurant had that intimate, candle-lit feeling that only comes from being alone in a crowd.
Maude's Liquor Bar is the latest effort from Brendan Sodikoff and the crew behind Gilt Bar. Open for just a few months, Maude's has already carved out its own niche in Chicago. For the new spot, Sodikoff has toned down the hype and lowered the prices.
Maude's cocktail list is not overwhelmingly long. But, like Spencer Tracy once said about Katherine Hepburn, "What there is is choice." The list is split into three sections: Shaken, Stirred, and Smashes.
Start with a classic stirred Bijou, a combination of gin, green Chartreuse and vermouth, in this case, Broker's gin and Carpano Antica. But be sure to wait until some bread reaches your table, as this drink packs a punch. Don't worry, in the candlelight the crumbs on your shirt will be invisible to your date.
If you're in the mood for something lighter and less challenging, go with a St. Germain Fizz, which combines Death's Door vodka, aperol and soda with the now-ubiquitous sweet liquor. All drinks are $11.
Classic smashes aren't that common in bar menus these days; they combine booze with fruit, herbs, and a lot of crushed ice. If you're only going to get one, it should be the Smokey Violet, which brings together Ransom Old Tom Gin and Creme de Violet with a quick rinse of Laphroaig. You can also order a smash with Smalls gin, Chartreuse, Grand Marnier, or whiskey. These unique cocktails are interesting and tasty, though perhaps a little bit watered down by the heaps of ice.
The food at Maude's is perfect for tasting a few cocktails, though the portion sizes will annoy those with a huge appetite. With your first drink (and I can't quite believe I am saying this) eat the house bread and order a Bibb lettuce salad, with huge leaves of crisp lettuce, a sherry dressing and fresh herbs. The escargot ($9) are traditional and delicious, served drowned in garlic butter and the roasted bone marrow ($13) is perfectly paired with red onion jam. Don't bother with the entrees, which are solid but standard, but be sure to try the savory country terrine with whole grain mustard ($13), a great hit of fat and salt that will prepare you for the next drink.
The restaurant doesn't just offer cocktails—their full bar is well stocked and there's a rotating selection of $3 whiskey for those uninterested in cocktail frippery. A gin list that takes up half a page always makes me smile, and the beer and wine selection is extensive and not limited to France.
I'll be heading back to Maude's the next time I'm on West Randolph Street. I might not eat an entire meal there, but it's the perfect spot for a drink (or three) with a special someone, before you move onto the final destination for the evening. Though, if your date is a gin lover, you might not be able to get them out of their chair.
About the Author: Anthony Todd is Associate Editor, Food and Drink for Chicagoist.com. In his spare time, he drinks Manhattans and works on his Ph.D. in American history in a south side neighborhood with few mixologists.
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