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SEEING THE LIGHT Dim lighting and lack of windows add to Cherry Circle Room’s mysterious vibe.

Raising the Bar

by Lisa Shames | Men's Book Chicago magazine | December 3, 2015

Not long ago, the bar area at restaurants was where you went to wait until your table was ready. These days, those bar stools have become some of the most in-demand seats in the house—and for good reasons. Not only do some places offer special bar-only menus, but those coveted spots get you that much closer to the bartender. We’ll eat and drink to that. Here, five of our favorites.

Spiaggia
This elegant Michigan Avenue restaurant is well-known for a lot of great things. There’s a reason why, some 30 years after opening, it still attracts visiting celebs, including the Obamas. But what isn’t as known is that Spiaggia’s bar is a terrific place to experience the fine-dining Michelin-starred restaurant without committing to a multicourse meal (although you really should do that too). On the abbreviated menu, you’ll find the same attention to detail and top-quality ingredients as on the regular one, including in offerings such as focaccia with foie gras ($15) and one of the city’s best versions of that classic Roman pasta dish cacio e pepe ($24). As for the stunning view of Lake Michigan for which the restaurant is often praised? Just as spectacular from the bar as it is from a table. 980 N. Michigan Ave., 312.280.2750

Cherry Circle Room
No matter where you choose to sit at this tucked-away Chicago Athletic Association Hotel restaurant (tip: go through the bustling Game Room and past the elevators), you’ll have a great view of the meticulously restored space. But for us, it’s for a seat at the gorgeous curved wood bar that we find ourselves returning again and again. The comfy stools make it easy to sit back and relax, and offer a great vantage point to check out all the quirky knickknacks—vintage megaphones, etched glass decanters—in the bookshelves in front of them. Should you want to check out the cool crowd this place attracts—and you really do—a quick swivel of your stool makes it possible. Both the food menu created by chef Peter Coenen and cocktails from Beverage Director Paul McGee do a terrific job of honoring the historic significance of this 1893 building without getting stuck in the past. In other words: The perfectly made Old Fashioned ($13) is even better than you remember, while the beef tartare ($15) offers plenty of modern twists to keep it interesting. Bellying up to the bar will never be the same. 12 S. Michigan Ave., 312.792.3515

Fig & Olive
When this chic Gold Coast restaurant opened, the people behind it weren’t sure how its clientele would react to the no-TV policy in the bar area. And now? “Get here as early as you can if you want a seat,” advises General Manager Chris Parth. Sure, the French Riviera-inspired restaurant’s new lounge-only aperitivo menu (Sunday to Thursday, 4 to 7pm) may have something to do with the crowds. But Fig & Olive’s bar has from the beginning been catnip to a loyal group of regulars who not only appreciate the full-service dining experience and Mediterranean cuisine, but the social aspect of dining at the bar too. For those looking for a more intimate experience, head upstairs to a second bar, which has seats for two to three. Added bonus: You get your own personal bartender. 104 E. Oak St., 312.445.0060

Swift & Sons
While this just-opened West Loop restaurant is definitely a steakhouse—and a big and beautiful one at that—it’s much more than top-quality aged steaks and “boutique beef” offerings. “You don’t have to have an entire steakhouse experience to enjoy Swift & Sons,” says chef Chris Pandel. And that’s especially true in the tavern area, where one side offers a more casual area complete with TVs for watching the game; and the other, a more chill vibe. (Pandel recommends heading to one of the four cozy booths.) The tavern menu ranges from shrimp cocktail ($18) to Gouda-topped onion soup ($9). Meatheads aren’t left out either with three steaks from which to choose ($28 to $49) along with a double-patty cheeseburger ($12). Who says you can’t have it all? 1000 W. Fulton Market, 312.733.9420

Salero
Just when we finally figured out this whole tapas thing, along comes this modern Spanish restaurant with nary a small plate in sight. Unless, that is, you sit in the bar and lounge area. That’s where chef Ashlee Aubin turns out tasty two-bite wonders such as patatas bravas, jamon croquettas and uni-topped toast ($5 to $6), which pair perfectly with Salero’s extensive selection of sherries. Aubin isn’t afraid to break with Spanish tradition either, as his Midwest-inspired pimento cheese-stuffed tempura shishito peppers ($8) prove. Says Aubin, “We’re always doing new stuff so our regulars don’t get bored.” No chance of that. 621 W. Randolph St., 312.466.1000