I'm finding myself in Chicago this week, and didn't think I'd have much time for serious cocktail research...but a friend took me to the California Clipper, and I think I'm in love.
This gorgeous speakeasy-ish place has been open since 1937. Low lighting, Deco accents, red neon, and they're named after a Pan Am Boeing 314 flying boat. They feature board games, bingo, live music on the weekends, (not to mention a resident ghost) and proudly proclaim that they don't have a single TV in the joint. And you've gotta love a place that has so much of a sense of history that it posts its phone number on its website as "EVerglade 4-2547."
So: how were the drinks? The cocktail menu was promising, featuring classics like Sidecars and a Perfect Rob Roy. And when was the last time you saw a Grasshopper or Brandy Alexander on a bar menu? My companion started with a Champagne Cocktail for her first round, and switched to straight Champagne for subsequent drinks. And I had Stingers. It felt marvelously decadent to sit on a chromed barstool in a dim bar, with old Pan Am posters and Naugahyde booths in view, drinking a Stinger, listening to Neko Case, and catching up with an old friend.
Couple things about Stingers -- whenever I describe the ingredients to someone, they typically recoil in horror at the perceived sweetness. But a properly made Stinger (as these were) isn't overly sweet; it's a brandy-based cocktail, and you should definitely taste the brandy without any of the tooth-coating stickiness of one of those sorority-girl drinks with the outré names. (Upon tasting it, my friend's eyes opened wide, and she exclaimed "TV's Moesha!") And a well-constructed Stinger feels unbelievably elegant...while managing to sneak up to you without your realizing it. It may have been the other drinks in the evening (such as a "bull" -- an unholy-yet-refreshing amalgamation of rum, beer, and lime juice at the Mexican restaurant across the street) or the general giddiness of finding a new gem, but after a few I'd reached the stage in which I am acutely aware of the exact angle of my head at all times.
Or was that the Purple Martin? I also sampled this house drink, which consists of grape soda (on the gun, even), Malibu coconut rum, and a smidgen of lemon juice. I must admit the flavors went together better than I'd feared, but it wasn't quite my cup of tea. (Another thing about starting out with Stingers is that you pretty much have to stick with Stingers, I've found.) But this was a rare misstep, and the place had enough good-humored elegance to keep me more than happy. As I text-messaged to a friend while I was in my cups, "I've just found that I would buy if I won the lottery." And, in a way, finding the California Clipper felt like winning a mini-lottery all on its own.