Some bars you love for a single, specific reason — proximity to your house, comparative niceness/mixological capabilities of the bar staff, a certain drink, a friendly/attractive clientele. Better bars you love for lots and lots of specific reasons; new obsession Grand Tavern is one such place. Without further ado, and in no particular order, they are:
1) The space! Housed in an adorable upper-Grand Avenue stucco house, this is your living room, but better: floral wallpaper, worn couches, well-chosen knickknacks, crystal (or crystal-looking) chandeliers, a candle-filled fireplace, a handsome wood bar with a veritable mountain of high-quality booze. (The owners admit they put a lot of time and energy into the setup — but even so, it doesn't feel overdesigned, just homey and warm.) There are house plants and cushy chairs and weird little nooks to sit in; if this were actually my living room I would literally never leave the house.
2) The coffee cocktail. There's no coffee in it, actually — just egg whites, brandy, ruby port, house-made simple syrup, and a nutmeg garnish, plus other unidentified deliciousness — but what the drink lacks in truth in advertising, it more than makes up for in taste: It's warm-feeling but not actually served warm, sweet but not cloying, dense but not too rich. (Also, caveat alert, a teensy bit weak for my tastes, but altogether very balanced.) Grand Tavern basically only serves so-called pre-Prohibition cocktails (that is, drinks that were created around the early 20th century and often made with painstaking technique while mercifully devoid of flavored vodka and soda pop and names ending in –tini but not starting with mar-). It's a slightly limiting choice, but one that works with the general aesthetic. The Corpse Reviver (gin, Cointreau, lemon juice, Lillet Blonde, and exactly one drop of orange bitters and five of absinthe) was also fantastic, as was the Old Cuban (sparkling wine, twelve-year rum, mint leaves, gum syrup, and lime juices; all clean, crisp citrusiness, like a less-sweet mojito). There's a lengthy and not-terribly-expensive wine and beer list, but seriously, guys, the coffee cocktail. Just take my word for it.
3) The off-the-beaten-path-ness of it. If Grand Tavern were in Uptown or even just a bit closer to Lakeshore, it'd be packed. But as it is — on a quiet stretch of Grand Avenue a few blocks removed from the street's main shops and restaurants — it is quiet and pleasant and not sceney or clubby or crowded in any way. There is absolutely no weird lighting, and if they play music, it must be of the benignly-pleasant-and-thus-barely-perceptible variety. This is a very, very good thing.
4) The food. Grand Tavern is a real dining establishment, and a classy and critically acclaimed one at that: In a 2009 review, Express food critic Matthew Stafford described it as "delectable." So if you look at it one way, Grand Tavern is a nice restaurant with equally nice drinks; the other way, it's a low-key drinking establishment with extraordinary bar snacks. In either case, a cocktail and an $8 plate of duck pate is pretty hard to argue with.
5) The last time I was there, one of the waiters gave us an accidentally pulled IPA for free.
6) This is sort of a secret, but if you walk, skate, or bike there and tell your waiter, they'll take two dollars off your drink (honor system, please) — a very welcome discount, with drinks scraping the apparently-now-standard $10-$12 ceiling.
7) There's wi-fi! The friend who introduced me to this place, a freelance writer, swears by Grand Tavern as something of a boozier alternative to the coffeeshop for weekday productivity. It's not hard to see why.
8) The staff. "I know this is corny, but we really are a family," explained one bartender with adorable sheepishness. He's right on both a figurative and literal level, seeing as the core of the restaurant-bar is run by a mother-daughter-son team, and the rest of the staff works with the kind of well-oiled coordination only true closeness can create. These are people who will remember you weeks after your first visit and indulge every odd question you may have — and they're also serious about supporting the community, with several monthly fundraising nights. If you're not already in love with this place, you're not paying attention.
9) Major, major bonus points for not being judgey about people coming in just to drink.
10) The ice cubes (seriously). Grand Tavern's ice cubes are practically perfect, made in a special machine called the Kold Draft, which produces magical, unusually dense, exactly-one-inch-cubic little crystals that are said to melt much slower than your standard chunk of frozen water. Superior ice is a small, silly detail, but like everything else at Grand Tavern, it's a detail that makes a difference.
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