Typically, the heat of a new place determines the “see and be seen” (SABS) factor. If it’s new, and they’re serving sushi on backlit tables, then chances are there’s going to be a wait to get in. But there are roadblocks aplenty to achieving successful SABS status.
Consider this, a place like Mastro’s – known for its gargantuan sides, manly USDA Prime beef and piano lounge – certainly has the buzz of being a big, new player in River North, but it’s so dark inside there’s no way you can see anyone past the table next to yours. Then there’s a place like GT Fish & Oyster, which has amazing food and outstanding cocktails to get the crowd properly lubricated, but if you’re sitting in the front/bar area, you’re never going to see much beyond the oyster bar. Finally, there are “hot” “new” places like Cantina Laredo and Filini, with great sight lines and massive bars, but once you taste the food, you know you’re never going back (I did, and won’t).
So in order to garner SABS status – and more important, maintain it – is to ascend to a level of hospitality that combines architecture, planning, execution from the kitchen, and most important of all, great lighting.
1. Roka Akor, 456 N. Clark St., (312) 477-7652
I know it’s a chain, but the sightlines are great, the bar is spacious and the tables are spaced appropriately, so you can just barely see what your neighbor is having. Nothing like an open grill just to the side of the dining room to bring out your inner caveman.
2. The Publican, 837 W. Fulton Market, (312) 733-9555
I would never call it a meat market, even though this ode to pork, beer and oysters is tucked firmly into the meatpacking district. The soft, European lighting gives off a warm glow that is visible even when you drive by.
3. Paris Club, 59 W. Hubbard, (312) 595-0800
Now this is a meat market, especially if you head upstairs late-night, and request bottle service. But seriously, there’s always a great DJ in the downstairs bar, and the wide, well-portioned dining room has zero obstructions and several mirrors, which are perfect for the narcissist inside each and every one of us.
4. Girl & the Goat, 809 W. Randolph, (312) 492-6262
Stephanie Izard has become Chicago’s latest “it” girl behind the stove, and for good reason: she’s personable, talented and knows how to expedite while stopping to pose for pictures. But the room – especially near the bar – is the place to hang, and if it wasn’t so deafening, I would probably hang there a little more than I do.
5. The Pump Room, 1301 N. State St., (312) 787-3700
As much as Chicagoans might hate to admit it, the New York team of Ian Schrager (architect) and Jean-Georges Vongerichten (chef) have, if you’ll excuse the term, pumped new life into this moribund space. The room is modern, while at the same time just gorgeous. The lighting, meanwhile, manages to maintain a precarious balance between slightly dim (great for those Gold Coast dames who’ve had some work done) but also vivid enough so that everyone in the expansive space looks great. The Library Bar across the main lobby is also a swell spot for a drink.
Sunda, 110 W. Illinois St., (312) 644-0500
Billy Dec takes a lot of shit from people. The nightclub impresario oversees Underground, as well as Rockit and Sunda (which used to be helmed by The Food Buddha, but alas, the zen is gone). He also tweets/blogs/promotes his projects with great zeal, even doing so on the new “Windy City Live” show on ABC 7. What Dec lacks in culinary know-how he more than makes up for in talent: from the host stand to the servers; even getting the butts in the seats. Every time I’ve been here, I’ve been amazed at how good-looking the crowd is, and the room layout certainly doesn’t hurt.