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Paul McGee Runs Down the Four Athletic Association Hotel Beverage Programs and Concepts

Land & Sea Dept's four concepts are very much an "ode to classic Chicago" that include tableside preparations.

Paul McGee
Paul McGee
Clayton Hauck

"The cool thing for me is we're doing all these different programs in (the Chicago Athletic Association Hotel) and it's kind of a dream come true," Paul McGee says. "Instead of opening four different bars, I can do this all in the same place."

Indeed, there's a lot going on at Land & Sea Department's projects inside the restoration of the historic Chicago Athletic Association Hotel, originally built in 1893. Four different spaces with connected concepts focusing on classic Chicago—Drawing Room (lobby), Milk Room (micro-bar), Game Room, and Cherry Circle Room (main restaurant)—will all open at the same time, hopefully at the end of May, along with a Shake Shack on the ground floor and Cindy's restaurant upstairs.

Land & Sea (Longman & Eagle, Parsons Chicken & Fish, Lost Lake) and McGee, the group's recently-hired star beverage director, hope the concepts and different price points bring in the entirety of people in the area, including students, tourists, business people and residents. "You know when you get those feelings in a hotel where you're like, ‘oh man, I have to be quiet or dress a certain way?'" McGee says. "I feel that this is not going to be that place. It's a very nice property and it's a beautiful building that's been restored immaculately, but at the same time it's supposed to fun."

McGee gave a primer on the beverage programs that are on tap in each space, and an overview of each concept.

Drawing Room: The second-floor lobby, immediately up the stairs from the ground level (where Shake Shack will live), will be a place for people to "hang out in the morning and have coffee" and a "reception/gathering area at night," McGee says. There's a long communal table, couches and multiple fireplaces in the 300-seat space, and food and drink will be served all day long. The beverage menu will include the same cocktails as the Game Room (read below), and be more wine-focused than other spaces in the hotel, with a list curated by former Alinea sommelier Andrew Algren that focuses on French and American varieties. "(Algren) really brings (wine) down to earth for people that don't understand a lot about wine," McGee says.

Milk Room: A hallway leads from Drawing Room to the Game Room, but on the way patrons will find Milk Room, an eight-seat micro-bar in a cutout that McGee says is "a really, really small place." Here you'll find grab-and-go items and pastries during the day, but McGee's staff will serve only extremely rare spirits and spirit-forward cocktails beginning at 5 p.m., made with each specific bottle until they run out, and no vodka sodas, beer, wine or anything else. "You can get something as low as $16 but I think most of (the cocktail prices) are going to be dependent on how rare the bottle is, and if you want a daiquiri that's made with a pre-embargo Cuban rum, then you're probably going to pay $100 for it," McGee says. "It's like drinking a little bit of history."

Game Room: On the other side of that hallway lies the Game Room, a casual space that houses two bocce courts, pool tables, table games, around 300 seats, couches, and a 15-seat bar. McGee's cocktail menu, also available at the Drawing Room, will rotate eight drinks but always include a bottled Manhattan variation, a sour, a Collins, a Pimm's Cup, a highball, and a frozen drink. Most will cost $10, and the highball (spirit and mixer) will cost just $8. The beer menu includes six on draft (including one cheap $4 option and a limited edition brew from Marz Community Brewing), 8-10 bottles, and pitchers. McGee says chef Peter Coenen's team will serve burgers, hot dogs, oysters, and shellfish here. "The whole idea is to make (the Game Room) more approachable for people that are (in the area) on a daily basis," McGee says. "We want to make it comfortable for them."

Cherry Circle Room: Land & Sea Dept's main restaurant in the hotel will be an all-day place (breakfast, lunch, brunch, dinner) for "old-school dining and classic Chicago," McGee says, and have features that McGee has "never done before"—tableside preparations. Servers will push a cart around the room and make three different cocktails tableside: variations of martinis (the first will be "Turf Club" [equal parts gin and dry vermouth, cherry liqueur, absinthe in a smaller frosted martini glass]), old fashioneds and Manhattans. The full beverage menu is broken into two parts: one part classic cocktails or variations, and one part drinks from specific historic cocktail books, beginning with Jacques Straub's 1914 Chicago-centric book Drinks. After-dinner service will also utilize a cart for amaro and cheese, and include blended ice cream cocktails. McGee says chef Coenen will also implement tableside preparations, where his staff will cut chops make steak tartare at diners' tables. Like much of the Land & Sea's concepts at the hotel, McGee describes the Cherry Circle Room as "a throwback to a 1950s or a 1960s supper club."

Much more to come before the opening, which is slated for late May.

Chicago Athletic Association

12 S Michigan Ave, Chicago, IL (312) 940-3552 Visit Website