A Trip to Chicago's Ukrainian Village: A Night of Shots, Cocktails, and Fine Dining

By Thomas Mattera, Class of 2020

Thomas Mattera Headshot.jpg

Cold weather is more than a signal of seasonal change: it’s a call to remember the pleasures of warming food and drink. For me, at least, there’s something unaccountably comforting about being in a bar or restaurant when Chicago’s wind and chill rage outside. And if I must escape to a winter bunker, I’d prefer to be somewhere in the Ukrainian Village.

For the uninitiated, the Ukrainian Village is a small neighborhood, no more than a square mile in size, three miles northwest of The Loop. Originally inhabited by Polish and Slovak immigrants, it got its final appellation after Ukrainian Catholics settled there for good in the early part of the 20th century. The neighborhood is still home to many of these families who who have chosen to stay close to one another and the remaining parishes that mark its boundaries. I lived in the Ukrainian Village for nearly two years before Booth, and on a recent evening, returned to explore the neighborhood with two classmates.

We began our night at a favorite of mine, Sportsman’s Club, a small 40-seater at the corner of Western and Augusta. Sportman’s, like every bar these days, keeps the lights low, which in its case, has the added benefit of helping bring to life the taxidermied deer hanging from the walls. The counter is sumptuously long with slight serifs at each end that curve inward. Behind it, along the wall, the bar is a vanity of liquor and spirits punctuated by Doric lamps, a healthy mix of neoclassical and mid-century modern design.

Sportman’s updates its drink menu daily and offers a number specials – including a signature $10 cocktail and a $5 shot-and-beer combo – to a mostly young, hip crowd. The place has rightly earned neighborhood fame for being an excellent local, but it’s known in the larger Chicago beverage world for the tasty amaro blends it serves from chilled shot machines.

We finished our drinks and decided it was time for dinner. Our destination was Rootstock, a restaurant that straddles the border between the Ukrainian Village and Humboldt Park. When we arrived, it was already at capacity, so we put our names down and walked across the street to the California Clipper. The Clipper, a ritzy jazz lounge owned by the Hogsalt Group, had just opened for the night when we walked in. Still hours away from the packed scene it would become, we relaxed at a table and ordered a round of Old-Fashioneds. Sweet, smoky, and peppery from the rye, they were the right choice for the meal to come.  

Without much delay, we were beckoned to Rootstock. What strikes you first about the restaurant is that it has little of the pomp of fine dining. You feel like you’re the house of your friend’s grandmother and she is hosting her own pop-up. Checkered hardwood and plenty of upholstery contribute to the sentiment. Rootstock generally has a farm-to-table ethic but isn’t lazy about it. Locally sourced proteins and greens are featured in all the dishes.

We decided to split a smattering of things to go with a dry Italian red. A couple of dry-aged burgers with red onion, cheddar, and a surprisingly light bacon aioli were immediately gobbled up. (Mercifully, they came with fries cooked in beef fat.) The pasta, a special for the night, would’ve been unmemorable were it not for a heap of shaved black truffle. Lastly, we ate a seared chicken ballotine basted in foie fat topped with a brilliantly acidic leek and pear jus. Grandma did good.

Before we went our separate ways, I somehow convinced my companions to join me for one last drink. Unfortunately for them, my wish was a Chicago Handshake: a shot of Malört and a pony of Old Style. Like the true friends they are, they didn’t complain. Perhaps what’s best for the weather is warm company.