Diner’s Notebook: The Drifter speakeasy to open underneath Green Door Tavern

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“This bar will have a different feel. A gritty, raucous, rowdy place where you can kick back and let the hours melt away.” That’s how bartender Liz Pearce describes The Drifter, a new cocktail bar and speakeasy set to open early next week.

“Speakeasy” cocktail concepts have gotten a bad name in the past couple of years. Overwrought, often snobby and filled with self-important staff, the speakeasies of the present imagination are nothing like the drinking parlors of the prohibition days. The Drifter, on the other hand, will boast an authentic prohibition-era location and an atmosphere designed to put drinkers at ease, rather than make them tense and nervous. “Drinking is supposed to be fun, and hopefully that will come across,” explains Pearce. The atmosphere will be enhanced by a variety of “sideshow” acts, including cabaret singers, burlesque dancers and more.

The Drifter is a tiny bar (only 40 seats) underneath the Green Door Tavern, which bills itself as Chicago’s Oldest Tavern. Used for years as a special events area, the basement space has been cleaned up by Pearce and her team. Green Door’s amazing collection of antique Chicago memorabilia provided a rich library to draw upon, including a vintage circus tapestry and a treasure trove of antique liquor bottles. All of the decorations were somewhere in the space already – all the team had to do was clean and curate.

Annemarie Sagoi, most recently of The Dawson, will join Pearce, whose resume includes stints at The Gage and The Aviary, behind the bar. They’ve created a cocktail menu that will rotate regularly – selective, rather then encyclopedic.

“We don’t want to overwhelm anyone with a menu of 60 cocktails,” insisted Pearce. “We’re making it easy. There are 8 that will be offered every night.”

The drinks are printed on replica tarot cards, adding to the circus-like atmosphere of the space, and many are riffs on classics. These include a manhattan infused with porcini mushroom and a chocolate negroni. All cocktails are $12.

There are also some more innovative choices. “Everybody has done the bacon infused cocktail thing – it tastes pretty good, but it’s been done,” said Pearce. “I’m going to do a tequila cocktail washed with al pastor. You get that meaty flavor with authentic Mexican flair.” Or try the “Players Gon’ Play,” a spicy combination of Hennessy black, herbal Becherovka liqueur, milk punch and cayenne. If you’re not interested in cocktails, they will also serve a small selection of beers and a menu of affordable glasses of wine. “Nothing in this bar is going to be unattainable,” says Pearce.

The project has been over a year and a half in the making, due to a combination of licensing issues, renovations and menu development. That’s what happens when you’re working underneath a wooden building from 1872 – though the basement space doesn’t have the tilt that makes Green Door famous.

Anthony Todd is a local freelance writer.

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