What's the most romantic bar in Chicago? While my travels are still far from complete, The Tasting Room certainly deserves a spot in the conversation since it opened in 2000. This industrial-chic wine lounge and restaurant at the west end of Randolph Street's restaurant row offers one of the largest wine selections in the city, an accessible, refined menu and a staff that's informed and attentive, but nowhere near pretentious. For a first date, intimate dinner or a small group outing, The Tasting Room gives you many reasons to dine, and very little cause to whine.
Located across the street from upscale eatery 160 Blue, The Tasting Room isn't the most accessible place and probably requires wheeled transport to get there. If you're driving, there is a small, free parking lot on the premises and street parking on this portion of Randolph is almost always available. Opened since 2000, The Tasting Room occupies a two-story pre-war building that was a working factory for decades before beginning its second life. Out front, you'll find a sizeable, and somewhat serene, sidewalk patio. Attached next door is the retail end of the operation, Randolph Wine Cellars, where your receipt from The Tasting Room will score you VIP discounts on select purchases.
The lofted first floor contains the main bar and lounge space, with the kitchen and facilities at back. The spacious room is warmly lit with strung lights and votive candles, accentuating the unfinished brick walls, steel columns and minimal artwork—all of which would look right at home in Manhattan's Tribeca neighborhood. Settle in among the low couches and cocktail tables or head to the second floor, with its host of cozy leather loveseats and counter-style tables reserved for diners. Here, soft canned lights glow from the standard height ceiling, while picture windows offer excellent views of the nearby skyline. If the ambiance doesn't at least lay the groundwork for a romantic or festive evening, you may want to reconsider your company, or just order extra wine.
The latter won't be a problem at The Tasting Room. They have an extensive standard and reserve wine list by the bottle, but what sets The Tasting Room apart is their copious by-the-glass offerings and the multiple ways to enjoy them. Complementing the 6-8 wine flights that are offered, there are at least 75 wines available by the glass, or by the "taste." A taste consists of a 1.5-ounce pour that easily allows you to create your own flight or to sample a rare selection that might run upwards of $120 a bottle otherwise. Dom Perignon Epernay anyone? Tasting portions extend to cordials, rare liqueurs and spirits, as well, making The Tasting Room a great place to expand your palate. The list can be a bit overwhelming for some—a.k.a. me—but our server and wine consultant was extremely knowledgeable and steered us in the right direction repeatedly. (Service is definitely geared to be casual. Don't be surprised if they plop down on the couch with you and guide you through the phone book sized wine list.)
Beyond wine, The Tasting Room also makes their own red and white sangria, maintains a selection of craft ales, and offers a rotating menu of seasonal cocktails created by The Tasting Room's Director and Master Mixologist Nick Luedde. Mondays you'll find all wines by the glass 50% off, and Tuesdays all bottles under $99 get an equal discount.
The Tasting Room describes their menu as "nouveau-American comfort food" and who am I to disagree? I can't pronounce it, but the charcuterie menu led us to try the house-made Spanish-style chorizo. We paired that with a smoked gouda from the artisenal cheese selection. Both were excellent. The main menu is geared toward sharing, with a number of small plates, flatbreads and fondues supplemented by eight entrée-sized dishes that you'll probably split anyway. Overall, each item we sampled, including the upscale fried chicken dinner, served with cherry-root beer BBQ sauce, was satisfying. For dessert, try the dark chocolate smores, prepared tableside. Despite the gourmet presentations, we found the prices right on par with the quality we received, about equal to the city's burgeoning gastro-pub lineup. The Tasting Room draws an upscale, adult clientele, equally split between couples and small groups of 4-8. The late arriving crowd is mostly dressed "smart casual" or better, but the mood isn't overly stuffy by any means. The Tasting Room is open 5pm to 1am Monday-Friday and 2am Saturday, closed Sundays.
If you enjoy fine wine and fine food—sans the attitude—for a romantic interlude, you should definitely put The Tasting Room on your (wine) list. If you like The Tasting Room, you should enjoy the city's oldest wine bar Webster's, the Purple Pig or maybe Pops for Champagne. For more information, check out The Tasting Room website and remember: "Wine…maketh glad the heart of man," according to the Book of Psalms.