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Faceoff: Chicago's new art gallery bars

When attending a friend's art show or a gallery opening, I'm always first in line for the free champagne pours. I like visual art a lot, but even I have to admit that splotchy collages and moody photographs seem more intelligible with a drink in hand. Clearly I'm not alone. Chicago has welcomed two new gallery-themed bars this summer, each promising to douse artsy pretension with unique cocktails and quirky food. River North's Gallery Bar (738 N. Clark St. 312-929-2658 ) and Ukrainian Village's Fame (2015 W. Division St. 773-227-1110) at first seem offbeat, but that's to be expected, right? I hung out at both on a recent weekend to find out whether they were art-school cool or just a big, paint-splattered mess.

THE ART

Gallery Bar: I'm relieved to know that Gallery Bar's featured art will rotate monthly, since I only cared for a handful of the dozens of pieces that sprawl across most of the walls. Art is subjective, of course, but there was little continuity to the chosen pieces, which ranged from mixed metal collages to mildly provocative photos. Without a consistent display height or an overall theme, the mish-mash reminded me of a high school art show. I did appreciate the tags displaying the artists' name, materials used and the price of the work (most are a few hundred dollars and up). The night I stopped in, one couple eyed a particular painting for a while; if they liked it enough, they could have filled out the card that came with the check and a Gallery Bar curator would contact them to coordinate the purchase.

Fame: Less is more when it comes to the art at Fame. A few edgy/sexy black and white photographs all are uniformly matted and framed, and a few other punchy posters are thoughtfully placed on select walls. The focal point, though, is a wall-spanning mural by celebrated New York street artist Aiko, who recently collaborated with Louis Vuitton and was the first woman to repaint NYC's iconic Bowery Mural. Most of Fame's servers and bartenders are artists as well, and their specific mediums—from jewelry to writing to painting—are listed on the menu.

Advantage: Fame

THE COCKTAIL SHTICK

Gallery Bar: Beer cocktails—part liquor, part beer—make up half the menu. It's a novel idea, but one that needs to be executed carefully to keep the beer from watering down the drinks. Thinking a darker beer might make for a bolder cocktail, I chose the Flying Dragon ($10), made with porter, rum, pineapple juice, orange shrub and orange liqueur. I had a hard time describing its muddled flavors to my date, so for my next round, I turned my attention to the side of the menu featuring signature cocktails. The Mighty Aphrodite ($10)—cucumber and pear vodkas, elderflower liqueur, ginger liqueur, lemon juice, simple syrup and champagne—was way too sweet for me to finish, but fans of so-called "girlie drinks" might want to give it a shot.

Fame: Vanilla, bacon and cucumber are just three of the flavors Fame's bartenders infuse into spirits such as gin, tequila and bourbon. These "house infusions" are available solo—neat ($14) or up ($14)—or in cocktails such as the Fame Mule ($12), a combo of vanilla-infused vodka, ginger beer and lime. I love Moscow mules and give this one style points for its chilly copper mug, but the vanilla vodka didn't seem like a logical flavor to pair with citrus. The Sagacious cocktail ($12) made with sage- and grapefruit-infused gin, grapefruit wedges and sparkling water, tasted fresh and herbal, but could have used a splash of simple syrup to balance its bitterness. Non-cocktail drinkers will find a moderately priced beer list as well as wines by the glass.

Advantage: Draw


THE FUNKY FOOD

Gallery Bar: Given the dim lighting and the amount of info on this food menu—there's a back story to seemingly everything, from a 10-point hot sauce heat scale to a paragraph describing the global inspiration for each dish—it took my date and I almost 15 minutes to sift through the choices. This is a bar; I just want something tasty and easy to eat while socializing and drinking. "Street food," the hottest phrase since farm-to-table, is the focus, but that doesn't explain why the burrito-like wraps that anchor that menu are called "bonzai." It also doesn't excuse the sloppiness of the Osaka Pizza ($9)--a poorly named pan-fried potato pancake topped with pepper aioli, soy-sesame sauce, bonito flakes and avocados--that tastes like the unfortunate fusion of a latke and maki.

Fame: Las Vegas chef Sam "Sammy D" Demarco is behind Fame's eclectic menu, which offers twists on bar staples such as tuna poke "nachos" (actually plantain chips) and pulled pork-and-grits egg rolls. My favorite were the springy, fist-sized bao bun BLTs (two for $12) folded around gyro meat and lamb bacon and served with a cooling tzatziki sauce. Fries cut from yucca—a starchy root similar to a potato—can be dry and flavorless, but Fame's were properly salted and straight-from-the-fryer hot, which goes a long way toward justifying the $6 price tag. Make that $7 if you want a dipping sauce, which could include truffle aioli, sriracha mayo, Dr Pepper sauce, or—record scratch—BF Jizz. My server sighed and shook her head when I asked about the name, eventually explaining that the syrupy sweet barbecue sauce is named for an "inside joke" between chef Demarco and Food Network celebrity chef Bobby Flay (BF). Logical? No. Still gross? Yes.

Advantage: Fame

THE VIEW

Gallery Bar: An awning and, on the night I visited, a doorman, let me know I'd reached the street-level entrance to the second-floor space. The bar and dining room area wait at the top of the staircase lit with colored lights. A large front window looks over Clark Street and directly faces Zed 451, and while the view isn't anything worth snapping a photo of, it's nice to have some of the city scene upon which to rest your eyes when they're tired of scanning the busy walls.

Fame: Don't look for a sign above Fame's garage door windows quite yet. Instead, look for the bar's spacious sidewalk seating, which rivals that of Division Street neighbors The Fifty/50 and Fatpour. Light wood benches, candles, plants and multiple types of clustered seats were loosely arranged the night I was there, affording me plenty of room to spread out and people watch. I had slim voyeuristic options though, because for an hour or so, my date and I were the only two seated outside. Some passersby asked me the name of the bar, and our server handed out a few menus to curious groups.

Advantage: Fame

BOTTOM LINE:  If you want to get serious about art, potentially while wearing a black beret, go to a real art gallery already. Neither Fame nor Gallery Bar is authentically artsy enough to satisfy your nouveau-boho friend from Pilsen, and neither serves cocktails worth traveling for. Fame does win points for its better-than-average snacks and for offering a much-needed counterpoint to the rapid bro-ification of Division Street, while Gallery Bar probably is best left to the tourists.

RedEye reporters visit bars unannounced and meals are paid for by RedEye. kbernot@tribune.com | @redeyeeatdrink

Copyright © 2015, RedEye
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