By Lisa Arnett, @redeyeeats
5:37 PM CDT, October 31, 2012
When a bar opens downtown, there’s really only one thing I want to know: Will it be someplace I actually want to hang out or better left to the tourists?
On Michigan Avenue, Hard Rock Hotel’s sleek sushi-and-saketini spot China Grill has been replaced with Chuck’s Manufacturing, a spunkier, laid-back bar with the potential to lure locals working at nearby Illinois Center.
Meanwhile, on the west end of River North where Hubbard Street dead ends into Kingsbury, the two-floor space vacated by Latin dance club Rumba also has a new life. Below Baume & Brix, an inventive new restaurant from a team of ex-Moto and Ing chefs on the main floor, there’s a lower-level lounge called The Grid run by the same team. In their new incarnations, do either of these downtown bars have what it takes to transcend the touristy set and become your new regular hangout?
>>Jump to our review of The Grid
Mini-review: Chuck’s Manufacturing
224 N. Michigan Ave. 312-334-6700
Rating: !! 1/2 (out of 4) Take it or leave it
The scene: On a recent weeknight, Miss DJ Meg spun upbeat tunes from a raised DJ booth perched between Chuck’s front bar—a Michigan Avenue fishbowl thanks to towering floor-to-ceiling windows—and its spacious back bar and dining room, hidden from the view of passersby. Suspended high above the bar, gigantic gears fashioned out of pink, yellow and blue acrylic are a nod to the auto parts biz of namesake Charles “Chuck” Becker, who bought the Carbide & Carbon Building and turned it into the Hard Rock Hotel.
The drinks: Shot glasses and some cocktail glasses look like they’re leaning—a trippy twist that makes you feel like you’ve had one too many even before you’ve sipped your first drink. (It was apparently too much for one hotel guest with a southern accent who demanded his cranberry-vodka be poured into a regular glass.) The Kingpin ($12) is the cocktail equivalent of “Cloud Atlas”—between ginger, elderflower, basil and sriracha, there's lots going on and neither the parts or the whole make much impact. I had better luck with the Sway Bar ($12), a slightly sweeter version of a classic cocktail called The Aviation that earned my allegiance once I discovered a candied black cherry in the bottom instead of the standard-issue neon-pink bar cherry. The bar shelves are full of flavored vodkas, but the bartenders don’t appear to be plugging them, and beyond a cherry vodka-spiked Coke ($10), they’re not featured on the cocktail menu—maybe because such novelties/abominations (depending on who you ask) as whipped cream vodka are best enjoyed in a red Solo cup with root beer at a house party.
The food: Bar snacks look run-of-the-mill at first look but are more clever when you look closely: A plate of mini-brats ($11) comes with a sidecar of Two Brothers beer, while fried veggies ($9) get a pickled punch from soaking in brine before hitting the fryer. There are plenty of full-blown entrees for $14-$27 (double-cut pork chop, grilled salmon, herb-marinated chicken, four different pastas), but I think the best way to judge a new bar is by its burger. The signature Chuck’s burger ($15) with cheddar, fried onions and barbecue sauce sounded tasty in theory but crumbled into a heap thanks to the undercooked patty.
Gripes: Hotel bar beer prices are in full effect. Mass-market domestics for $6 and standard imports for $7 may not faze hotel guests dining on expense accounts, but it won’t keep downtown office workers coming back for post-work drinks.
Likes: Bartenders who sense when your glass is empty earn brownie points in my book, and the cushy barstools that line the double-sided bar were some of the comfiest I’ve lounged in lately. Complementary pretzel service with a trio of mustards for dipping might distract you from those beer prices.
Bottom line: Chuck’s is more fun for a post-work cocktail than China Grill was, but I’m not confident that it’ll become a regular hangout for locals.
Reporters visit bars unannounced and drinks are paid for by RedEye. firstname.lastname@example.org | @redeyeeats
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