I did not know the contents of the cocktail I drank, but I knew it tasted delicious and that it was free.
After ordering just a Stella for $7 — only a dollar more than the beer I bought an hour earlier at the sports bar down the street with a dive-aesthetic — a bartender for this quiet spot in The Langham hotel came over to my window seat overlooking the river and gave me the Stella, various spiced nuts, a water and this free cocktail. Surrounded by the exposed, famous black steel in the Ludwig Mies van der Rohe designed building previously occupied by IBM, I felt overwhelmed by the opulence of the place.
Real flames flickered around me. Glass orbs of strange shapes hung from the ceiling. A multi-story Christmas tree stood just feet away. I believe the bartender explained the complimentary cocktail had three different types of apples, caramel and an alcohol that got more-or-less burned off, but I can’t say for sure. My eyes and mind darted too many directions. I felt like I could convince another patron to invest a million dollars in my non-existent start-up here. That is if anyone else was around on this Monday night besides the friend I had come here with.
I had seen this bar through its second story window multiple times while heading home to my Marina City studio just across the street. For months I had been too intimidated to go in. The entrance to The Langham has multiple guards standing beneath a metal awning with over 100 lightbulbs pointing down. The lobby has a giant statue of a head that looks priceless. But after seeing that a relatively cheap drink — at least for River North — could be attained at the bar, I decided to brave it.
I should have done so sooner. The guards welcomed my friend and me with giant smiles and instructed us how to get to the bar. An elevator had been waiting on the floor and opened up to reveal itself to be one of the nicest elevators I’ve ever ridden. Since the bar is part of a hotel restaurant space called Travelle, but dining had ended, the available seating appeared endless. We sat down on furniture that easily cost more than all of our own furniture combined. We got a view of the Chicago River and its surrounding architecture of renown.
Despite the river view, I found my eyes bouncing all across the room as new details kept revealing themselves. I liked how the back window looked out to the parking garage of Marina City, but somehow made those cars and cement appear cinematic. The cylindrical bulbs above the bar somewhat mirrored the entrance downstairs, but appeared to have flickering flames. A giant glass case featured bottles of liquors I would never be able to afford. After some minutes of this, I couldn’t help myself from exploring the space more.
I got up from my seat and, still feeling some intimidation, meandered with caution to the room with the giant Christmas tree. In this room I found endless Christmas decorations, a raging fire and only one other human in sight — an employee behind a desk, presumably for late-night check-ins to the hotel. Craning my neck upwards to gaze at this towering tree, I thought of the underwhelming apartment-building Christmas party I had just attended around the corner at a tacky chain called Bar Louie. I was there and now I am here, taking in the wonder of evergreen magnificence. And all for a $7 Stella.
Filled with Christmas cheer, I pressed onward in my exploration and went down a hallway beyond this lobby space. Even more tables and seating dotted the space to my right. Expensive-looking art sat on the tables and lined the walls. To my left, I came across something unexpected… an empty, red-covered room with a golden throne. I presumed this throne was meant for Santa and dared not place my butt on such a holy seat.
After my walkabout through the heart of yuletide, I sat back down next to my friend. I picked up the tulip-shaped mini-glass with my free cocktail, drank the mystery contents and felt happy. Looking around, a few people now sat near us and a few people sat at the bar. The bartender held a bottle of champagne near her face, examining something or another about the label. The real millionaires had arrived.
Living in River North, I have struggled to find cool places to drink that don’t charge a minimum of $10 per round. Almost everything here is a steakhouse, a sports bar, a bad chain or a try-hard bougie place attempting a hip posture. Even Rossi’s, a place that opens at 8 a.m. and has the “divey-est” dive bar aesthetic I’ve ever come across, isn’t that cheap. Over time, I have discovered that the fanciest places seem to have the affordable options since they make the bulk of their money from the champagne and the long-aged scotch. While a place like Watershed on State St. has a $3 Schlitz because of the multi-hundred dollar bottles getting sold in the upstairs Pops for Champagne space, the run-down Snickers across the street will charge you $7 for a regular beer.
And so in context, the $7 Stella at The Langham goes a long way. (You also don’t have to get a Stella at that price, the bar offers three other beers for $7, including one from Chicago’s Revolution brewery.) We wore ratty pants and old shirts and every staff member interacted with us with wide smiles. Perhaps our bartender wished we had spent more, but hopefully the more than normal tip helped.
Earlier in December, Redeye had a story called “There are too many holiday bars in Chicago, so we ranked them for you.” The headline explains the story. Since it isn’t technically a holiday bar, Travelle at The Langham didn’t make the list, but I think it should have. You might not get to meet other Christmas-revelers or have the option of a cocktail with a Santa pun, but this place will still fill you with cheer. Just make sure to bring a friend.
Image credits: Images of the bar and the furniture from Travelle. Other images by Todd Van Luling.