An English chain will soon reanimate the former bank at Ashland and Division in Wicker Park. The Cauldron, a London-based chain with five locations in the U.S. and UK., will transform the former Bedford into a magical-themed pub using science to create drinkable “potions” and wands that activate drink taps.
The Cauldron markets its beverage program as science-based sorcery influenced by wizards and witches from fantasy lore such as Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and the Chronicles of Narnia. At 10,000 square feet, the Cauldron Chicago will be the chain’s largest and first with a speakeasy element.
“I’m obsessed with fantasy and I love the idea that you can take something from your imagination and make it real,” co-founder Matthew Cortland says. “We’re basically building Margaritaville for wizards.”
Chicagoans have seen magic-themed bar pop-ups come and go, but the Cauldron’s co-founders Cortland and David Duckworth promise something more elaborate: an intricately designed environment with three spaces packed with interactive technology that patrons can control with their own sensor-based wand. Customers will use wands like the plastic cards issued at a pour-you-own-beer bar.
One of Cortland’s first tricks was to tap into Chicago’s darkest magic: he contacted the folks at CH Distillery. Malört burn and cauldron bubble: The makers of Jeppson’s Malört will partner with the bar on 10 to 12 malört-based cocktails including the Wormwood Wizard, the Windy Manhattan, and an unadulterated Magical Malört Straight Up.
“We are working with them to develop a whole slew of malört cocktails for their speakeasy menu,” CH Distillery founder Tremaine Atkinson confirms, adding they’re “celebrating the magical properties of wormwood and malört.”
A speakeasy-style bar inside the 1920s-era building’s safety deposit vault is one of the three spaces: “It’s a Chicago jazz meets wizards in a speakeasy setting,” Cortland says. “And what better way to enter a city than by partnering with brands people know and love — or love to hate.”
The Vault will also offer classic cocktails. Each party will also get to choose from the Vault’s collection of more than 4,000 keys and open a safety deposit box that contains prizes ranging from a free drink to a potions class to a $1,000 bar tab. The co-owners plan to add a stage and piano for live music, and have even minted their own currency that customers can hand over to a bank teller in exchange for beverages.
With just a wave, for example, a would-be wizard can prompt a dispensing system to release a drink or open a box to retrieve a recipe. The Cauldron’s proprietary tech is on full display in its main event, a ticketed “Potion-Making Experience” where robed and wand-armed drinkers learn to concoct three cocktails that bubble, smoke, and change color. Non-alcoholic options are also available, and all the components are vegan and gluten free.
The Cauldron will also house a walk-in bar and restaurant with a pub food menu overlaid with kitchen magic. Described as “British food” (which could mean anything, including flavors from the countless countries the British Empire had colonized), the lineup includes fish and chips sprayed with sea salt and served on hot river rocks with dry ice at the bottom for an oceanic effect; a flaming pan-fried cauliflower served with ribbons of liquid English white cheddar; and “Elven Bread,” a sweet challah-style loaf wrapped in banana leaves and tied with string.
The entire affair is a dramatic change for the former Bedford space, which has remained vacant since in 2017. In November 2020 city officials shut down an illegal 300-person party that flouted both typical event requirements and COVID-19 regulations. At the time, ownership group RDM Development and Investments proposed a new rooftop bar and restaurant for the Division Street building, which includes a CVS Pharmacy on the ground floor.
Cortland declined to comment on whether the Cauldron intends to make use of the rooftop space.
Some called the Cauldron a “Harry Potter-style bar” when it opened in London. There’s no formal affiliation or cross-promotion with the fantasy franchise, though English publications habitually invoked it when covering its debut. In light of the record-breaking success of the recent Hogwarts Legacy video game — despite a call for boycotts stemming from Harry Potter author J. K. Rowling’s transphobic statements — any wizard-themed establishment may be cast with extra scrutiny. Regardless of her net worth and immense cultural power, however, Rowling does not possess a monopoly on magic.
Cortland says that the Cauldron isn’t based on a particular series or story but draws on the genre: “As a queer person, I understand the need for safe spaces and inclusivity, and how important it is to be loved for who you are,” he says. “As the owner of a company, I’ve then tried to imprint that ethos of acceptance onto the Cauldron Company’s DNA so that our staff and customers are able to be themselves within our walls. We are who we’ve always been — people passionately trying to bring magic to life and make people smile while doing so.”
Despite any whiffs of Harry Potter, the bar’s opening date is an important one to fans of another storied franchise. A Jedi is just a glorified wizard anyway: May the fourth be with you.
The Cauldron Chicago, 1612 W. Division Street, scheduled to open Thursday, May 4.