A question I often hear is, “What’s your favorite bar in Chicago?” It’s nearly impossible for me to pick a favorite, but when I was asked to choose three of my go-to wine bars, I had some ideas. Wanting to be fair and recognizing that a plethora of newbies have hit the Chicago drinking scene, I took it upon myself to do some on-site research. I also re-visited some old haunts just to make sure they were still as good as I remembered. I had a plan of attack and descended upon over a dozen wine bars in over a dozen neighborhoods. One thing became clear: I was looking for an experience.
Ambiance and wine lists were important, but these made the cut because they offered something unique to everything else out there. So here’s my list of some of my favorite Chicago wine bars. You might have others to add, and I hope you do because, after all, variety is the spice of life - and it’s what certainly makes Chicago tick.
Quartino: The Italian One
I am engaged in serious love affair with Italy. My many visits have allowed me the fortune to to have spent countless hours in various enotecas throughout Italia. As is the case anywhere you go, each bar is different, but there are unique characteristics that in the end make them all undeniably Italian. And Quartino has them all.
Opened in December of 2005, Quartino features a seasonally-driven menu highlighting made-from-scratch dishes based on rustic Italian recipes. You can taste the Italian mantra of preparing food with passion thanks to chef and partner, John Coletta. Amore in every bite. But for our wino purposes, let's look to the name, Quartino, which refers to the way Italians like to serve wine. It’s the cute little quarter liter glass carafe accompanied by the cute little glass tumbler that gets plopped onto your table no matter where you go in Bella Italia. Nothing screams Italy more than this unsuspecting duo. And, depending on your goal, you can up size to the half liter or whole liter carafe. Salute! The wine selection is simple and straightforward: red or white and light, medium, or full bodied. The end. Whether you’re a novice or an expert, finding a wine that’s right for you is effortless. Yes, Quartino is in the midst of bustling River North where you expect over-hyped and over-priced everything, but that’s what makes this place unusual. It’s cozy, yet lively. It’s chaotic, yet intimate. It’s classy, yet unpretentious. It’s delicious, yet affordable. In a nutshell, it’s Italy, and the wine flows and flows and flows. (626 N. State St.)
Beviamo: The Neighborhood One
The local watering hole is where I usually like to spend my time drinking a beer, chewing the fat with regulars and talking about the old neighborhood. Beviamo is wine’s version of the corner tap. Italian for “let’s drink”, Beviamo opened in Little Italy in 2000 by a couple of Southside siblings wanting to create a unique boutique wine bar. Similar to the concept of craft beer and craft beer bars, Beviamo emphasizes the products of small batch wineries and they make every effort to work directly with them to support the smaller mom and pop shops. While the selection is somewhat limited, you can expect to drink something truly unique and unavailable in other locales. Glass, bottles, and wine on tap are options. The menu is revamped every few months, producing offerings based on the season. And just like the corner tap, don't expect any food or TVs, but do expect a comfy lounge like place with local art on the walls and live music on the weekends. (1358 W. Taylor St.)
Geja’s: The Historic One
Geja’s Café opened it doors on Wells Street in 1965. Inspired by a fondue-filled European adventure, owner John Davis knew that such an establishment might be a risk in Chicago - who would possibly interested in this stuff? Turns out, no one was. So John began hosting global wine tastings and emphasizing wine education, ultimately creating Chicago’s very first wine bar.
The fondue is good and the romance is hot (they’ve been voted most romantic restaurant in the city for countless numbers of years), but even if you’re not in the mood for either, that’s no reason not to pay it a visit. Staying true to their wine roots, it’s a great place for just that. With 40 wines (and bubbly) by the glass and 300 by the bottle available at any point in time, you’re bound to find something you like.
Not sure what you’re looking for? No problem. Just ask for a taste. And another. And another. And another. The Geja’s staff are knowledgeable, thorough, and friendly - they’ll gladly help you find a wine that you want to drink and tell you all about it. And with all that romance, the people watching is mesmerizing, the live flamenco and classical guitar music is soothing and the wine is just right. Look out for interesting and educational events like the monthly Winemaker Dinner series. (340 W. Armitage Ave.)