Listen to chefs talk about the state of the contemporary dining and, of course, you enter into a conversation about Modernist cuisine. But the other thing today's great chefs consider is the culinary experience they provide. At The Aviary, Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas' much-anticipated cocktail venture in Chicago, the experience, from sense of place to taste, is achieved with playfulness, authenticity, and even restraint — creating one of the country's most interesting cocktail pilgrimages.
The corner of North Morgan and Fulton isn't the first place you would look for the nation's most-anticipated restaurant, Next, and Achatz's cocktail lounge. Sure, another molecular destination, Moto, is there, but otherwise the quiet street is full of parked white delivery trucks and lined by seemingly-deserted buildings. There are train tracks nearby, wire-mesh fences, and buildings covered with graffiti. The apparent desolation makes the excitement to come even more of a reward for lucky food and drink thrill-seekers. Though getting into The Aviary is no small feat.
The bar allows walk-ins Wednesday through Sunday starting at 6 p.m. (good luck). There are a limited number of pre-reserved tables for 6 p.m., 8:30 p.m., and 11 p.m., and a whiff of the Next-generation, Momofuku-special-reservation effect at play, with chances day-of. The Aviary's staff "randomly" selects email requests each afternoon at 3 p.m., then wipes the slate clean. If you haven't heard back by 3:30 p.m., you didn't get lucky. Just hope the other member of your party tried and was.
There's a speakeasy quality, save people waiting to be ushered in by a Newsies cap-clad bouncer (touching the handle without approval is not a good idea). Two windows to the right offer a glimpse into the kitchen's four drink-making stations. There's a special kitchen table you can reserve in an alcove featuring Culinary Artistry and On Food & Cooking.
Once inside you wait against a wall in a dark vestibule. Around the corner are horizontal birdcage bars which separate kitchen from patrons — keeping who in or out is subject to discussion over a drink.
And when you sit down on the banquette and start drinking, discussion will inevitably turn to whether you can parlay an in at The Aviary into one at Next — a tantalizingly close experience. The Next dining room is even visible from a connecting hallway, and The Aviary reservation auto-responder promises that last-second magic could happen: "Please be aware that when possible, we do try to offer available tables at Next to Aviary guests; inform your server if you are interested."
Be interested (you never know), but focusing on something that could happen and missing the creations at The Aviary would be a mistake. The dynamic drinks, vessels, and tastes there are no consolation prizes. They are without hyperbole, likely the best and most creative cocktails and bar snacks in America. If you've had Commonwealth's Narwhal or sampled the mojito, caipirinha, or spherified olive "New Way" Dirty Martini at The Bazaar, you've glimpsed what to expect. But there's more — the world's best tater tot, a bite inspired by Crab Louie, flavored ice, and a range of 'cube' shapes that include something resembling The Dark Crystal.
It's not often something so heralded delivers. At The Aviary there's a playfulness that could become gimmicky but never does. Mike Sula recently noted in The Chicago Reader that a visit to The Aviary could become one of those essential activities that defines the Chicago experience. You could easily go further and say it is a requisite cocktail experience for anyone interested in the genre. Explore it in the accompanying slideshow, which features all the food and half the cocktails. Whatever rents are in this low-key part of the Near West Side, you imagine they're on the way up.