Hip retro sodas gaining a following in Chicago
BY ANTHONY TODD For Sun-Times Media December 10, 2013 3:45PM
Eleven City Diner Lincoln Park
2301 N. Clark
730 W. Grand
DMK Burger Bar
2954 N. Sheffield
703 Church St., Evanston
Updated: December 10, 2013 6:44PM
Phosphates. Egg creams. Green River. Root beer. These may sound like some very old-fashioned sodas, but in the past few months, they’ve become hipper than ever. Restaurants and bars around the city are creating non-alcoholic drink programs that rival the most complex cocktail menus, and they’re a bargain for tipplers.
“Soda is fun, it’s whimsical, and everyone loves it,” explains Brad Rubin, owner of Eleven Lincoln Park. The diner, an offshoot of Rubin’s Eleven City Diner, has a full-time soda jerk, along with a full collection of original equipment. Antique lovers should belly up to the soda bar, which boasts an original multimixer from 1947, a Bastian Blessing soda fountain from 1962 and tons of other vintage equipment. Rubin imports Fox’s U-Bet syrup from Brooklyn to make his genuine egg creams, which contain neither cream nor egg. “If it’s not made with Fox’s U-Bet, it’s just a chocolate soda,” Rubin insists.
For the true soda aficionado, Eleven Lincoln Park boasts not one but two different varieties of barrel-aged root beer. They age the syrup for a year in a merlot cask before mixing and dispensing it.
Eleven Lincoln Park isn’t the only place for a root beer lover to get a fix. The Dawson, a new bar/restaurant in West Town, also employs an in-house soda expert. But rather than mixing, Dalton Finney is making his own sodas from scratch. The Dawson just introduced a homemade root beer, brewed with more than 20 different ingredients. Finney admits to sassafras, star anise, vanilla and cinnamon, but the rest, he says, is secret.
Why soda? Finney says it’s because he can make it into anything he wants. “With spirits, someone else has already decided what the ingredients taste like,” he says. “With sodas, I’m only limited by my creativity and time.”
In addition to root beer, the Dawson serves mixed non-alcoholic drinks. The Cherry Phosphate, made with old-fashioned acid phosphate from a bottle that looks like it came straight from a 19th century drugstore, is particularly popular. “I told my grandma that we were doing sodas, and she asked, ‘Would there be phosphates?’ ” says Finney. It’s a mix of tart cherry syrup (made in house), acid phosphate and carbonated water. “It reminds me of eating a cherry pie!” he says.
They also serve a non-alcoholic variation on the Greyhound cocktail made with grapefruit, pineapple, phosphate and a bergamot-juniper spritz on top.
At Farmhouse, chef Eric Mansavage has teamed up with local producer Melissa Yen for his soda program. Yen is the driving force behind Jo Snow Syrups, available at specialty stores as well as Whole Foods. In addition to traditional flavors like cola and root beer, Yen turns out flavors like tangerine-lavender-honey and balsamic black walnut.
“I’ll never be able to compete with the big guys, nor do I want to,” says Yen. “I just want to offer an alternative that’s slightly less bad for you.” Yen has created special flavors for Farmhouse, some of which end up in her regular bottled line (like the cola) and some of which are special. Right now, in addition to root beer and cola, Farmhouse is serving a Concord grape soda and a cream soda.
You might be a bit surprised when you order a root beer at Farmhouse. “There’s no artificial caramel color, so it’s not going to look like ‘root beer,’ ” explains Yen. “There’s also a lot of fresh ginger in there. It’s a lot lighter than regular root beer — I can’t drink regular anymore, it’s just so heavy!” The cream soda is made with figs and brown sugar, while the cola includes coriander, vanilla, citrus and lavender.
At just-opened Nico Osteria, bartender Matty Eggleston has created a saffron lemonade and a pistachio soda. At DMK Burger Bar, you can wash down your burger with homemade vanilla-ginger, pineapple basil or blood orange soda. They even have a pomegranate-apple cider for wintertime.
These sodas cost from a couple bucks up to $8, but here’s the good thing: You definitely won’t get a hangover after you drink them.