Soon all the names will run out.
Already they’re dwindling, with restaurateurs ditching the stolid monikers of the past for a few new innovations: the banal-adjectival (Lovely, Flirty), the baroque-ligatured (Baume & Brix), and the whimsical-nonsensical (Table, Donkey and Stick). A fourth category, comprising illicit-sounding names that evoke Prohibition (Scofflaw, the ersatz speakeasy Untitled), seems to have a touch of Brooklyn in it, but the comparison is unfair to Chicago. We gave the world Al Capone, didn’t we?
Immediately Billy Sunday alerts your Brooklyn receptors, but the namesake is actually a real dude, an early-20th-century baseball player who found god on a visit to the Pacific Garden Mission. He became a revival preacher, and such was his fury as a temperance activist that he was name-checked in “Chicago (That Toddlin’ Town)”—in a line that, until this very moment, I had misheard as “the town that ‘billies someday won’t shut down.” I though Frank Sinatra was singing about a hillbilly invasion.
Well, no worries here. Billy Sunday, the bar, is dark, charming, and right at home in the overstuffed heart (or stomach) of Logan Square—within spitting distance of Lula, Longman, and Reno. What an embarrassment of riches! Nostalgic art hangs on the wall next to sconces that look like tree branches that look like antlers; bartenders, like their brethren at haute cocktail spots across town, all look like they could feasibly be called “Billy.” A friend and I sat at the bar one night and talked about how it wasn’t long ago that the Violet Hour was the only tap in town for high-concept cocktails. Now they’re everywhere.
This is for worse and for better. It seems to have authorized lesser watering holes to charge Violet Hour prices for what’s often pomegranate swill. On the other hand, it’s created a bona fide market, in which both bartenders and drinkers can pursue their own interests: gin at Scofflaw, complicated glassware at the Aviary, tiki drinks at Paul McGee’s forthcoming Three Dots and a Dash.
What claim is Billy Sunday staking? The chief surprise and pleasure of it is bartender Alex Bachman’s creative and judicious uses of sweet ingredients; across the current menu you’ll find, for instance, quince, orange curacao, rhubarb sherbet, and Welsh nectar, a raisin and lemon concoction. Credit is due to a place that opens in the dead of Chicago winter with a daiquiri on its menu. It had better be good, and it is—delightful, actually, with the fresh flavor of passion fruit complemented by two kinds of rum and pineapple bitters. An ethereal gin-based cocktail, Against the Bliss, is similarly refreshing, like the best lemonade, accented with rose bitters. These drinks are great now; they will be sublime in summer.
Sweetness and light pervade the cocktail menu: in a beguiling pisco punch, with Batavia arrack and a hint of nutmeg; in the In Word & Deed, with white whiskey, quince, vermouth, and lime tincture; even in a triply bitter number called the Victorian, which includes Fernet, amaro, and wormwood bitters (not to mention gin) and yet goes down easy. Wine, a thoughtful beer list, and a few classic cocktails round out the menu: an old-fashioned was (I’ll be damned) a bit oversweet, and a negroni was perfect.
Under the direction of chef John Vermiglio (Graham Elliot Bistro, Table Fifty-Two), the edible options are similarly delicate. Billy Sunday isn’t one of those bars that offers “snacks” in the form of full-blown meals or, more often, liquor-sopping grease bombs. (The closest it comes to the latter is with fried pig ears, doused in malt vinegar and served with thick, pickly aioli.) Overall the snacks here are thoughtful, even conservative, and complementary, which sharpens the point of the place: drinking.
Vermiglio zeroes in on a few things and does them well. He’s got a flair for presentation: Pickled sardines—splayed out on the plate with two heads staring up at you, like one of those wall-mounted singing bass—are garnished with tiny potato chips and sauce gribiche. Slices of porchetta di testa, in tonnato sauce, billow exuberantly across the plate and are accentuated with apple julienne and little starbursts of whipped celery root. So dairy-heavy that it tasted more like salted whipped cream than celery, that last element was by far the weirdest, which is really saying something considering the dish is, essentially, pig head in tuna sauce. The porchetta itself is buoyant and tasty, the tuna and apple a perfect complement.
Now seems to be a good time to mention that Matthias Merges (Yusho), Billy Sunday’s owner, has said that he planned his cuisine in the style of “1940s and 1950s dinners at Grandma’s house.” I’m not sure who Merges’s grandma is, but perhaps somebody can introduce us? On the other hand, the menu’s single salad—generic dressing, rock-hard bacon bits—was closer to the middle of the traditional grandma-cuisine spectrum. In conception, so was a rabbit pot pie under a perfect biscuit crust; delicious, though the rabbit was elusive.
Then there are things in jars, or, as this bar calls them, “Things in Jars.” Vegetarians will find a roasted-tomato Thing and a whipped-garbanzo Thing; pescetarians may enjoy smoked trout, lemony and light with creme fraiche. I’d particularly recommend duck confit with orange marmalade and granola, which tasted of an entire Thanksgiving dinner concentrated into one magnificent spread. These jars would be entirely commendable but for the fact that they’re a la carte: each time we ordered one our server asked, awkwardly, if we wanted bread with that. Is there really a choice? This feels like a scam on an otherwise fairly affordable menu; you’ll end up paying $17 for that duck confit (itself only $11) if you want anything more substantial than a spoon to eat it with.
This, though, is one unkindness at a place that’s generally very congenial. Everybody has a dark side; Billy Sunday himself was no great hero. As the story goes, he once invited a disagreeable pacifist to the stage of one of his sermons, only to throw a punch at the poor guy.