Kate Bernot, RedEye
Mini review: Bordel Puncheon Club & Cabaret
1721 W. Division St. 773-227-8600
Rating: !! (out of 4) Give it some time
Speakeasy-style bars have been popular for years, and while Bordel isn't calling itself one per se, there is a purposefully clandestine feel to the second-floor lounge above Black Bull Tapas in Wicker Park. The bar's unmarked door inside Black Bull's foyer, the dim lighting and circular, red velvet-decked booths are meant to evoke a "European bohemian lifestyle," according to beverage director Brian Sturgulewski. The decor and the menu are inspired by a time during Prohibition when American bartenders moved to Europe and developed classic cocktails such as the French 75 and bloody mary. There's also a stage at Bordel, where, depending on which night you visit, you might see a flamenco dancer clinking her castanets, a jazz pianist sitting down at the keys or a burlesque performer stepping into the spotlight. With visions of "Moulin Rouge" in my head, I stopped into Bordel on a Friday night.
Stake out your spot: Though the bar says booth seating is "first come, first served," large parties can email ahead of time (email@example.com) to reserve seats. On my visit, confusion about where to sit threw me off seconds after arriving. Fewer than half of the huge booths along one wall were occupied, but a rushed server told my two friends and I that the rest were reserved for a birthday party. On busy nights, there are no stools at the bar, so rather than hover awkwardly in the narrow, crowded space, we ducked into a booth and hoped no one would tell us to leave. Once there, we were told that we'd have to close our tab at the bar if we wanted to order from a server, so we just switched off making trips to the crowded bar to order the next round.
Keep an eye on the menu: Bordel opened quickly—in bar industry time, at least. Sturgulewski said owners took about a month and a half between beginning work on the space and opening night, so though the bar had been open for two and half weeks when I visited, the cocktail list still wasn't finalized. The menu has since doubled in size to include 13 "strong but not silent" drinks (spirits-forward, stronger cocktails), 12 "swizzled and stirred" drinks (lighter, refreshing cocktails), plus two classic punches available by the bowl ($50) or cup and a house cocktail, the Bordel Spanish Coffee spiked with Grand Marnier and overproof rum. At $12 each, some of the cocktails are well-priced, including the Old Fashioned Whiskey Cocktail, which was well-balanced and served in a handsome, heavy rocks glass. Others seemed less of a bargain. I enjoyed the spices in both the Light Guard Punch and Boston Club Punch—especially the dry fino sherry and cognac combination that forms the base of the Light Guard—but paying $12 for a cocktail served over ice in a small teacup felt steep. The dainty cups are a nod to the Prohibition era, when some bars would covertly serve booze in them. I'm fine with the cutesy presentation; I just wish the cups were a bit deeper. And what's with the "Puncheon Club" in the bar's name? Yes, dictionaries do recognize pucheon as a word, but it's not something that rolls of the tongue with any ease. I'll file this next to Dusek's Board & Beer and Stout Barrel House & Galley as bars' full names I'll never use. Sturgulewski said he hopes to add a chalkboard of rotating specials developed by guest bartenders visiting from other Chicago and out-of-town bars. Surprisingly, a number of people waiting next to me at the bar opted for ho-hum beers and gin and tonics.
Listen up: In addition to live performers on the main stage, Bordel also hosts DJs at a second booth directly across from the bar. "It's a really cool, eclectic night when you start out with something more modern that the DJ is playing and then a jazz band goes on, and then classic French music, and then a gypsy guitar, and back to the DJ," Sturgulewski said. "It keeps the energy up in the room and allows for a gear shift." The DJ on the night I visited was playing a mix with bass lines that felt more club than cabaret, which, when followed by a classic Spanish guitarist on stage, felt out of place. I do give Bordel credit for booking live music without a cover, especially in such an intimate space, but the DJ could have read the energy better.
Bottom line: The bohemian lifestyle should be carefree, but the atmosphere at Bordel doesn't yet reflect that. The classic cocktails and sultry decor are right on, but the service and crowd flow need a bit more time to settle in. Division Street could use a serious cocktail spot to break up the blocks and blocks of beer bars, so here's hoping this one finds its footing.
RedEye reporters visit bars unannounced and drinks are paid for by RedEye. firstname.lastname@example.org | @redeyeeatdrink