It is probably one of those places you would never know existed if you didn’t hear about it from someone else. The Drifter is one of those bars that has to be experienced to truly appreciate. Once you find it, and it isn’t all that easy to locate if you don’t know what you are looking for, it could become your newest favorite hideout in the city. Located at 676 N Orleans Street, The Drifter is hidden in the lower level of the Green Door Tavern in River North. You may not have heard of it as it has only been there for just over a year and has done an excellent job of building a reputation as a speakeasy that takes some hunting to find as opposed to a bar with a main street frontage. That’s partly due to the legend of the location, and partly due to the location and ambiance. Sure, the neighborhood isn’t what will keep you coming back – the well-crafted cocktails should be the main attractant pulling you into this truly hidden gem of a place to drink and socialize.
Speaking Of The Drink Menu…
A stack of Tarot Cards serves as the drink menu. Each card represents a specific drink where there is a drink name printed across the top of the card and a short description of that cocktail that appears below the tarot graphic. Bartender/Owner Liz Pearce describes the drink menu in this manner: “It was important to me to have a menu that was easily changeable so we could swap out drinks to keep things fresh…I get bored really easily, so I wanted to be able to change up my menu often.” Out of the 45-card deck, the staff will pick between seven and eleven drinks from the drink deck. Some of those choices are left to chance, as would be appropriate with the use of tarot cards. However, Pearce will often slip in a card or two to “ensure a well-rounded menu.” The choices are easy and cover a wide spectrum. Examples include apple brandy, mescal, agaves, and bitters in a drink called World Class Aspirations and the Leblon James Vesper with cachaca, gin, grapefruit liquor, vermouth, and chamomile bitters. The B. B. Gun is a hit with many. It comes with vodka, gin, spiced pear liqueur, ginger, and prosecco. Other drinks come with names like Bols In A Vice, Dingo Stole My Baby and Snozzberry. Needless to say, you won’t be finding a lot of traditional drinks here and that makes sense as The Drifter is anything but your traditional bar.
The Drifter Earns The Speakeasy Reputation
The origins of the speakeasy date back to Prohibition in the United States. It was during that time, in the 1920s and 30s when the manufacture, transportation, and sale of alcoholic drinks was illegal. A speakeasy during that era was an illicit establishment where one could go to purchase a drink. In the 2000s, a retro trend began with bars that replicated many of the historic aspects of Prohibition-era bars. As for the term “speakeasy,” that first appeared in a British slang dictionary in 1823. The phrase “speak softly shop” meant a smuggler’s house. Later, the phrase “speakeasy shop” denoted a place where unlicensed liquor sales were conducted. As for The Drifter, the hidden location helps sell the speakeasy concept. However, according to Pearce, the location has some authentic history to it that verifies the speakeasy theme she adopted for the space. The building The Drifter occupies was once an Italian market. While that may not sound very covert, the market was reputedly a cover for an actual speakeasy. Tarot cards, anyone? Oh, and did we mention that The Drifter is below the Green Door Tavern? Historically, speakeasies were marked with a green door.
The Speakeasy Theme Fills The Space
So, what exactly does a speakeasy look like these days? For a retro-themed site, Pearce went all out by making use of a basement full of antiques she has had in storage collecting dust. The bar is draped by an American flag and directly across from that hangs a Mobil Oil Pegasus sign on the wall. But this is not your ordinary gas station logo. This one is riddled with bullet holes. The entryway is riddled as well but in knick-knacks. A curtain hides a small stage that hosts up to three different live performers a night. When not in use, the stage remains hidden and the curtain is used as a projection screen where various film clips are displayed. In Pearce’s words, these are “vintage soft-core – old burlesque, girls running around in underwear – Chicago at the turn of the century, just interesting bits and pieces.” There are also leather banquettes and light fixtures with vintage inspiration.
Then There Are The Snack Options
The drinks chosen from the Tarot card menu are not, shall we say, light. Pearce describes them as “strong” and a few finger foods are offered to balance out the alcoholic beverages. “We want people to be able to eat something to soak up the strong drinks, but there is not a lot of room down there.” Seating capacity in The Drifter is just 37 (including 9 barstools) and with each specialty cocktail costing $12, there was a need to fill the drink menu with food that goes with that activity that won’t cost much more than $6 to $10. “We had to come up with things that are easy to eat with your hands and share,” Pearce says. “I chose the stuff I like to eat when I’m drinking.” So, that came down to just a few options such as peppers stuffed with sausage with tomato fondue, olives, those sorts of appies that won’t overpower the drinks, but will help to tone down the drinks.
The Entertainment Is Um, Quite Entertaining
Stop us if you’ve heard this one…a contortionist, juggler, and a blonde walk into a bar. Okay, if you’ve heard funny stories that had first lines much like that one, then you have an idea of what kind of entertainment awaits you at The Drifter. In Pearce’s words, “We’re casual, gritty and rough around the edges…we are definitely trying to pick entertainment that goes with that.” In other words, the contortionist and juggler were two of the acts scheduled to perform one night at The Drifter. The juggler on this particular bill was a fellow named the Silver Fox who did all the expected tricks of your average juggler with the standard props of that profession – balls, rings and then there are the objects that a good juggler will balance on his nose. The contortionist, well, what can you say about a contortionist that won’t get twisted out of shape regardless of how carefully you try to describe the act? Pearce adds, “It’s not beautiful women taking their tops off, there’s no pop music…we’re going for a more eccentric crowd.”
You Might Get Lucky At The Drifter
Before you go there, we warn you that what you are thinking is incorrect. Partway through the night at The Drifter a staff member, one of five of Pearce’s bartenders she likes to call “real badass chicks” will wander the interior of the speakeasy going from patron to patron. In her hands is a Budda cookie jar containing a variety of fortunes. For the bargain price of ten bucks, you can reach into the cookie jar and pull out a fortune. Some of them feature one of the evening’s cocktails that will be yours free of charge with the pulling of the correct fortune detailing the cocktail win.
It may be a little cramped and not as easy to locate as your car parked on a deserted street, but The Drifter is well worth hunting for if you are in the mood for drinks that pack a punch, finger foods that are just as powerful in a setting that might prove time travel exists. The speakeasy-themed bar neatly – make that randomly – tucked away under the Green Door Tavern, is somewhere you have to stop by for just one drink from the tarot card drink menu while in Chicago. If not for the drinks, do it for the amazing – make that, unusual – entertainment. Mixologist Liz Pearce found the spot about a year ago and is using it for more than the storage space of her eclectic collection of antiques. She has transformed the spot into a bar that hints at the secret places people would go for something to drink during Prohibition. Only nowadays, the booze flows freely and there’s bound to be a juggler, contortionist, or fire-eating blonde in the wings waiting for their chance to get on the tiny stage and perform to a capacity crowd of…37. We did warn you that this place is a bit on the unusual side. But by the way Pearce talks about it, her speakeasy is a lot like her and feels a lot like home to her and many of her regulars. You have to experience it yourself to truly understand what it is like to have a B. B. Gun in your hand, before swallowing its contents.