For the past three years, the team behind Split-Rail have been developing a basement cocktail bar underneath the restaurant, and ownership will finally debut the space next week for a very special Valentine’s Day opening. The entrance for Dorothy is off Chicago Avenue, and after descending a flight of stairs, customers will find themselves in an open space with a piano, disco balls, and one of the funkiest-looking couches that’s ever sat inside a bar.
Split-Rail is a restaurant that specializes in fried chicken. It’s where chef/owner Zoë Schor opened her first restaurant after leaving Ada Street near Lincoln Park, where she starred for DMK Restaurants (Hayden Hall, DMK Burger Bar). Split-Rail opened in 2017, where Humboldt Park meets Ukrainian Village in West Town. Schor’s carved out a niche and has constantly fine tuned her restaurant for the neighborhood.
As bar patrons grow older, they crave comfort more and more, Schor said. They don’t want to feel the prick of another customer’s elbow inside a crowded space. Drinking habits change with age, and while Dorothy is a safe space for those who want to drink plenty, it’s also for those who are over that. Schor remembers when she was single, but she’s not “cruising” the bars anymore. Dorothy will be a place to spread out and relax: “This is for those who crave the next step,” she said.
“All I want to do is drink a martini and listen to Billie Holiday,” Schor added.
Schor is partnering with Michelle Szot, Split-Rail’s general manager and beverage director. The two met while working at Ada Street. Szot aims for thoughtful balance with Dorothy’s drink list. There’s no reliance on a particular spirit. There is a bit of synergy with the restaurant here and there. The chili-maple butter used for Split-Rail’s biscuits is also used in one of the drinks, the “Queen of Cups,” for example.
The basement was once a sports bar, but there are no TVs inside Dorothy. On occasion staff may show a movie on a projector. Schor really wants to create a welcoming space, envisioning queer nights and other themes to help establish all sorts of communities. Schor and Szot are self-described “Murderinos,” the nickname for fans of the popular true crime podcast My Favorite Murder. Some of the drinks have names inspired by the podcast like “That’s Exactly Right” (apertivo, pineapple, lemon, cayenne, bubbles). It won’t serve food.
Quari Ice, which makes specialty ices for cocktails, will be used for a few of Dorothy’s drinks. Fancy ice may put some dive bar fans off — it’s a challenge to create an atmosphere where dive bar devotees and fans of fun cocktails can co-exist. Fancy ice has sparked conversations with customers at Split-Rail, and it’s been generally well received, Szot said, so it makes sense to bring the cool cubes to the basement.
Split-Rail learned how difficult it is to walk that line as a neighborhood restaurant that has ambition when it pivoted to fried chicken a year after opening. Szot said they had to trim the restaurant’s wine list down early on after finding that customers preferred beer. Split-Rail lacks draft lines, but Dorothy will have 10 of them for beers, a draft margarita, and two wines. One of those beers is exclusive to Dorothy, brewed in partnership with Pilot Project, a Logan Square brewery. West Town Ale is a sessional that’s made with the aforementioned chili-maple butter.
Last year, Schor opened a second Split-Rail location inside Time Out Market on Fulton Market. Dorothy represents one of many ideas Schor has for more restaurants and bars. She and Szot are calling their new company Drinking Policy. Schor said she wants an operation where women can find success. She wants to open more spaces near Split-Rail, filling hospitality voids to better serve locals.
The bar’s name is also meant to show patrons that Schor and Szot aren’t being cliched. They really want customers to feel safe. “Friend of Dorothy” is a term used to describe a member of the LGBTQ community. The origins of the phrase aren’t clear, but many feel it’s derived from The Wizard of Oz as actress Judy Garland, who played Dorothy in the movie, is beloved in the community. Schor, who is gay, wants to host regular queer nights at the bar. She feels patrons shouldn’t have to only hang out in Andersonville or Boystown to feel like they’re part of queer life in Chicago. Szot is straight. As they’ve worked together through the years, Schor feels that Szot’s become an adjacent part of the community. Schor wants all people to feel comfortable.
“We’re not a gay bar or a straight bar,” she said. “We’re a neighborhood bar.”
Stay tuned for a tour inside the space.
Dorothy, in the basement of Split-Rail, 2500 W. Chicago Avenue, planned for a February 14 opening.