By Raphael Kadushin
Some neighborhoods seem to pop up suddenly, fully formed. Chicago’s West Loop has been a culinary breeding ground for years, ever since Blackbird, Avec and Publican—Paul Kahan’s supernal trinity—debuted on and around West Randolph Street. But it wasn’t until the Ace Hotel Chicago premiered last year that the neighborhood could claim a bona fide hangout of its own. That has a lot to do with the Ace brand’s general approach. More than mere hotels, Ace properties tend to blur lines; they do double as performance spaces, bars, lounges, restaurants, art clubs, and boutiques. They’re basically lifestyle centers, a concept that can be annoying unless it’s done well. And Ace does it well.
Chicago’s iteration, in fact, does it supremely well. As a simple hotel it stays true to the brand’s aesthetic that borders on an almost camp version of hyper masculinity. Guest rooms are a butch mix of industrial, artisanal, Boys Scout camp, athletic club, and ‘50s throwback; there are enigmatic metal racks, stripped wood desks, iron beds, and open shelving, along with turntables in selected rooms. All of which seems like a good fit for Chicago, or at least the still lingering meat and potatoes, cliché of the city, a dumb Midwestern lug.
The rest of the busy hotel is a better approximation of the truer, savvy, now-stylish Chicago. There is a prairie grass garden growing on one of the rooftops, and an event space that hosts arty conclaves, including readings and poetry slams from the Young (very very young) Chicago Authors. The penthouse bar and lounge, the Waydown, features DJ nights and regular LGBT events (recently the Peach pop-up party for queer women), as well as $12 cocktails that read like smoking potions (i.e. consider the Loose Talk, a heady mix of melon vodka, cocchi rosa, papirusa manzanilla, and, um, lime). Down on the ground floor the City Mouse restaurant is a web of bar, dining room, and outdoor terrace anchored by a fire pit. That’s where the boys from the new Google headquarters across the street gather for a mix of big-bro baby food (hamburgers, sundaes), the inevitable 2017 limping into 2018 trio (charred octopus, burrata, Brussels sprouts), and some well-done serious cooking (charred tuna with eggplant purée).
It’s Google of course, in the end, along with Ace, that is responsible for the area’s ascendance. Now the tech hub of Chicago, the West Loop will just keep expanding. The luxury condos are shooting up, the boutiques and art galleries are assembling, Soho House has already taken over a block, and every one of Chicago’s hipster aspirational restaurant is opening on every other unoccupied block (among the recent wave: Duck Duck Goat, Monteverde, Roister, Bellemore, and thank god a Shake Shack). Ace, with its unerring nose for the moment, doesn’t have to worry; it is sitting very pretty just where it belongs.