Downstairs underneath one of the most innovative cocktail bars in the country, hidden behind a locked door, is a closet-sized speakeasy. Inside is seating for just 14 people. Two bartenders squish behind a tiny bar serving personalized drinks created on the spot using rare liquors, ancient alcohols and home-made bitters.
The Office, the speakeasy at The Aviary, is named after the description on the blue prints for the tiny room next to the bathrooms. When owners Grant Achatz and Charles Joly (better known as the creators of Alinea and Next) asked the architect about the previously unknown closet-like space, he explained that it was used by the former tenant as an office. The name stuck and the idea for a speakeasy was born.
The Office, The Speakeasy at The Aviary
Speakeasys are a bit of a Chicago tradition, thanks to the Windy City’s prominent role in Prohibition and some of the era’s most famous faces — like Al Capone — using Chicago as their stage. Here, speakeasys are more than a trendy title for a bar; they are actually hard to find and even harder to get into.
Hidden Beneath The Aviary
The Office at the Aviary is no different. It’s rumored to be one of the toughest speakeasys to get into in Chicago and, in all honesty, I can’t even tell you a surefire way to get behind that locked door.
All I can tell you is how I got in: on a random Tuesday night when Kyle and I were at The Aviary to celebrate his birthday and the server invited us downstairs. She was more excited than we were — and admitted she’d just barely gotten in for the first time a week before, despite working there for months.
I was actually a little hesitant to leave The Aviary. The molecular gastronomy cocktails are listed on the menu based on how much “participation” they require. These drinks are so complex, The Aviary has a dedicated Ice Chef who creates nearly 35 different types of ice depending on the shape, size and flavor that best complements the drink.
But we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to experience The Office so we closed up our tab upstairs, finished the last sips of our drinks, then walked the long staircase downstairs to a door that I never would have noticed. The plain door looked like a maintenance room. Our server gave us the key and Kyle and I looked at each other, wondering if we were being tricked into going into the janitor’s closet, and walked into a tiny bar with a few seats, a few couches and a few very old bottles of booze.
Class Cocktails, Speakeasy Style
The Aviary’s speakeasy takes a different approach to cocktails than the famous bar. Downstairs, they focus on classic cocktails made with the best ingredients. There is no menu. Instead, drinks (all $20/each) are made based on a single spirit, or a conversation with the bartender. We told them what sort of drinks we liked and they created us each something based on our description. They even jokingly gave Kyle the daintiest glass in the room after we told them he’s always served the more ladylike glass when we order drinks.
In addition to serving truly craft cocktails, The Office at the Aviary is a sort of alcohol library where you can try liquor from eras long gone, even those prior to Prohibition. That is, if you can afford it. Some of these rare bottles of unique whiskey, rum and gin cost as much as $375 — for a single ounce!
We couldn’t justify a splurge of a rare whiskey, but we did have several cocktails and even a miniature ice cream cone for Kyle’s birthday. Then our tab was delivered: hand-written and sealed with a wax stamp. I’ve never considered my bar tab a souvenir before, but this one was oddly beautiful. (And yes, I still have it!)
Thoughts & Details
The Aviary itself is an experience not to be missed in Chicago, but if you can find a way to get downstairs to the Office, I highly recommend it.
Go to The Office :: The Speakeasy at The Aviary for :: an exclusive experience, if you can get in. :) Notes :: The Office is notoriously hard to get into, but start by going to The Aviary, which requires booking a time slot and paying for “an experience” in advance online, then ask your server if it’s possible to go downstairs. Prices to The Aviary range from $20 for the general room to $165 for a seven-course cocktail and food tasting, all of which goes toward your final bill. Or book a private party (up to 26 people) at the Office by emailing [email protected]. But even if you don’t make it downstairs to the Office, the Aviary is more than worth your time.