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Are bars having an identity crisis, or are they just getting smarter?

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The bar scene has gotten as competitive as the restaurant business, thanks to today’s cocktail culture, craft beer explosion, extensive wine-by-the-glass programs and upgrades in ambience, food and service. In fact, it’s often hard to tell if a place is a restaurant with a bar or a bar that’s a dining destination. And sometimes, the operators are trying to figure it out themselves.

Recently, I was with a friend at a new Chicago uber-bar called The Betty. Chicago Magazine billed it as a bar, and it sure looked like one. A mixologist was shaking up signature $13 cocktails such as the ones we ordered: Coffee & Cigarettes (rye, sweet vermouth, Madagascar vanilla and orange flower water) and La Grande Dame (gin, cognac, mint, lemon, grapefruit, Creole bitters and sparkling wine). Customers were grouped into cozy, lounge-like seating arrangements in a dimly lit space highlighted by vintage décor and furniture. We came for drinks and light bites, so we were led to one of the few more traditional tables in the back. The menu featured a lot of shareable plates, and we ordered a flatbread and a shrimp and clam combo from the 14 savories offered.

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The food was good, prepared by a skilled Chicago chef, but the tabletops were so small they could hardly accommodate the plates. And the cocktails were far more impressive. Despite the vibe, The Betty’s front-of-the-house staff calls it a restaurant and the website promotes the spot as a “dining destination of all sorts … ”  I still see The Betty as a place to come for a drink and a snack, or a cocktail to sip while you’re waiting to get into one of the West Loop’s popular restaurants—and so do my friends who have stopped by there.

Untitled is another bar in Chicago that seems to be having an identity crisis. Its name alone, its obscure entrance and the bouncer at the door give the impression—intended I’m sure—of a speakeasy or club. But during Chicago Restaurant Week in February, Untitled offered a $44 four-course menu along with dozens of other restaurants. I went with a few friends because I could never get into Untitled for drinks and I like good deals.

The space is divided into several bar areas where people can stand and mingle or sit at high tops. But I was really surprised to see all the four-tops and larger tables designed for dinner customers in another, larger room. And the food was a total surprise—very unexpected choices such as housemade charcuterie, grilled zucchini salad with harissa and grapefruit and salmon with arugula pesto and duck fat fries. Who would have thought a speakeasy would have a kitchen turning out this kind of fare?

I believe Untitled thinks of itself as a bar first and so do most of its patrons, but I guess they’re getting enough of a dinner crowd to employ a talented chef. Looks like restaurateurs have some tough competition out there from this new breed of watering holes.
 

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