Few places in Chicago can rightfully claim to be a complete nightlife destination but Carnivale is one of them. Over-sized in every respect, from the ambiance and Latin American flavors to the space itself, Carnivale is not a dining, drinking or entertainment venue, it's all of the above.
Located in the Fulton Market district, reaching Carnivale is best achieved by cab or car. While I pity the evening's designated driver, street parking can be had, though the $5 valet on weeknights is about the same price as feeding a meter. However you arrive, a festive multi-colored sign greets you as spin through the revolving door and are enveloped in Carnivale's 35,000 square feet of decadence.
Up a short flight of stairs and past the coat check you'll find the main entrance, with the hostess stand on your right and an extended bar area that straddles the Kennedy expressway. Behind the long curved bar the bartenders furiously muddle mint, limes and god-knows-what-else at break-neck speed. At the front of the room there is a floor-level performance space for the jazz, Latin, salsa and meringue groups that play most nights—and there's never a cover except for special events. The powder rooms are located past the bar and down a flight of stairs. While there, take a moment to peruse the gallery of risqué photographs on the walls.
Nearly five dozen tequilas are available in 1-2oz. servings, or in various flight combinations. The bottled only beer selection is thin, but does include a few interesting options like Xingu from Brazil and Estrella Damm from Spain. There's a substantial wine list if you prefer, but might I recommend one of Carnivale's specialty drinks? Beyond sangria and margaritas, mojitos are served three ways: traditional (made with locally grown mint), raspberry or ginger. $5 Mojito Mondays is a great entry point, if you've never tried this drink. My personal favorite, however, is the caiprinha (pronounced kai-pee-reen-yah), the national drink of Brazil. A delectably tart concoction of muddled limes, simple syrup and cachaça—a cousin of rum made from sugar cane—the caiprinha is a bit like a friendly sucker punch: have two or three and you'll never know what hit you...
After getting properly lubricated, (reservations are recommended and a virtual must on weekends), the hostess will show you into one of the largest dining rooms in the city. The day-glo infused dining room, with its sprawling main floor, balcony seating and rooms beyond can accommodate 600 diners simultaneously. The ceiling soars four stories overhead, with a decorative wine rack occupying most of the western wall. The cacophony of sounds inside make this a great place for celebrating groups and less so for those seeking a quiet romantic dinner.
The food and service at Carnivale are quite simply exceptional. As our waiter expertly rattled off the specials and answered questions, he got hung up for a moment: "In addition to our specialty drinks we can make almost any cocktail from martinis to, to…" at which point I chimed in with "Harvey Wallbangers" (a cocktail invented at Chicago's very own Butch McGuire's). The waiter laughed for a moment, shook his head and said seriously: "Sorry, we don't carry Galliano." So, not only did our server know the menu inside and out, he knew every liquor and liqueur behind the bar as well. Good times.
Appetizers and entrées selections cover most Central and South American countries and each month the food of a particular country is featured on the specials menu. Ceviches dominate the appetizer list, but if you're a meat eater the ropa vieja (which translates to "old clothes") is one of the tenderest, most flavorful dishes I've sampled in a long time. Entrées were equally delicious with standouts including the arroz con mariscos (think spicy seafood paella), the bacon wrapped chuleta (pork chop) and anything containing the house-made chorizo. Many locally-sourced and sustainable items are used in the dishes of executive chef Mark Mendez and all are served with special attention to preparation and presentation. Quality has its price, however, so expect to spend around $100 a couple plus tip.
Open since 2004, it's hard to argue with Carnivale's pedigree. Co-owner and designer Jerry Kleiner has had a hand in long popular spots Red Light and Marché and more recently Gioco, Opera and the Victor Hotel. So, as you might expect, the multi-generational crowd at Carnivale is mostly well-heeled, well-dressed and well-soused by the time they leave. Carnivale is a top starting point for bachelorette parties, so single gentlemen are encouraged to take note. Dinner is served until 10pm Sunday through Thursday, and 11pm on weekends. The lounge is open until 11am Monday and Tuesday, midnight Wednesday and Thursday, and 1am on weekends.
For the food, the drink, the fun, and not least of all, for the eye candy, keep Carnivale in mind for your next celebration. If you like Carnivale, might I suggest Café Iberico for authentic, affordable tapas or Nacional 27, for the second best caiprinhas in town. For more information, check out the Carnivale website. Salúd!
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