Farmhouse chicken and pommes purée with haricots verts; Photography by Jill Broussard
The Chesterfield is a time machine junket to an era of shameless imbibition, the golden age of cocktails. It’s a celebration of the great American barrooms of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when men were men, women were women and drinks flattened both.
Think of the period as the great spirits melting pot. Immigrants from places such as Scotland, Holland, Eastern Europe and the Caribbean converged on a land carpeted with fertile soil. They not only brought their native spirits, they combined their distilling practices with American crops, often creating completely new potions. What followed was the great flowering of the cocktail—a spiritual revival in a tumbler. Bars proliferated. Skilled barmen were afforded high social status, often on a level with doctors and lawyers.
Now, cocktail zealot Eddie “Lucky” Campbell (Suede, Culpepper Steak House, The Mansion, Jasper’s, Catalina Room, Bolsa and more) has hatched The Chesterfield, pickled in this distant nostalgia. The name is derived from the popular early 20th century smoke, the kind that was often found in tavern cigarette machines dispensing a single brand. The kind you’re barred from puffing while sipping your classic tipple at The Chesterfield. Unlike the early 20th century, we in the early 21st are cowed by the ghastly phantom of secondhand smoke. Let us hope the implication of errant Chesterfield fumes isn’t found to be as seemingly deadly.
The Chesterfield dwells in a circa 1896 downtown building once frequented by shadowy nightclub operator Jack Ruby. There’s even a hearty sandwich named after him: a baguette stuffed with thin flaps of roasted chuck, greens and pecorino cheese between smears of red pepper jam—a big chew built for stiff sauce. There’s also the L.E.S.: ribbons of housemade pastrami, sauerkraut, Gruyère cheese and Russian dressing on toasted rye. This addictively rich, warm sandwich is counterpointed by a refreshing salad of frisée, deep-fried shallots and arugula in a citrusy wine vinaigrette.
But mostly, The Chesterfield is about drinks, the classics that fueled the great early 20th century prose that is as extinct today as tobacco-scented lounges. Ernest Hemingway had his mojitos, and, strangely, sugarless daiquiris. William Faulkner quaffed mint juleps. And while humorist Dorothy Parker was partial to whiskey sours, she is best known for her ode to martinis: “I like to have a martini, two at the very most. After three I’m under the table, after four I’m under my host.”
Perhaps taking a cue from Faulkner’s aversion to brief sentences, The Chesterfield’s drink menu spans 11 chapters. Smashes. Derby Cocktails. Martinis. Sours. Fizzes. It’s a volume born of Campbell’s obsession with classic American cocktail manuals. The contents are focused little vessels of heady complexity. The garden gimlet—basil, lime, cucumber, Amsterdam Gin—blooms into a sensual fog of elaborate aromatics punctuated by citrus. The refreshing cadence of the bitter peach smash—Bulleit Bourbon, lemon, peach, mint—is compounded by the snow cone ice ball plopped atop the julep cup.
Campbell says he has nurtured a bar jones since the age of 11. And he makes for a peculiar sort of cocktail virtuoso: He’s a teetotaler. He was forced to adopt the persona after a long struggle with alcohol demons. “I never met a drink I didn’t like,” he admits. “And I would just keep going all night long. I would make deals with God. Every time God delivered and I did not.” He prayed one final time, and it stuck. Irony: The day after that prayer, he got his first job as a fulltime bartender.
Is he ever tempted by a well-stocked back bar? “You couldn’t pay me all the money in the world to drink again,” he insists. “There was nothing I wanted more than to drink like a gentleman. But I just can’t drink like a gentleman.” He can sure mix like one. And strangely, his handicap seems to work to his advantage. He crafts drinks by smell, the most neglected—often atrophied—of the five senses. His followers taste-test the results.
Backed by Ed Bailey of Bailey’s Prime Plus, Campbell has dressed The Chesterfield to the nines in retro barroom, with wood floors from a 19th century tobacco farm, leather-tufted banquette, walls patched with brick scavenged from a warehouse scarred by the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, crystal chandeliers and a private dining cubby that seeps swank.
The Chesterfield pairs it all with respectable New American foodstuff, the kind that absorbs all that classic juice so your head doesn’t go all Hindenburg and crash into the elaborate crown moldings. The menu is the work of Michael Ehlert, late of DBGB Kitchen and Bar in New York. (Bailey does have pull.) It’s a tightly focused bill: tasty, creative, appropriate. A delicious seasonal flatbread spread with butternut squash purée, Brussels sprout flecks, Italian aged bacon and pecorino cheese is light, fluffy and crisp with tangible edges of sweetness. And an odd layer of tobacco not unlike that found in a fine aged cabernet (that wicked leaf is a persistent phantasm).
Tender baby artichokes with capers braised in wine sauce are webbed with strips of deep-fried lemon peel, a foil that is as crafty as it is effective. Torchon of foie gras is a velvety lobe slice served with delicately crisp segments of buttered brioche and a bit of fig. Steak frites is a tender strip with well-seasoned fries and a sherry jus. Rolls of juicy farmhouse chicken breast laced with crisped skin are folded with herbs, ham and mushrooms.
The Chesterfield’s only hiccup is inconsistent service. The staff—outfitted in flapper dresses where appropriate—ranges from knowledgeable and attentive to insufficiently briefed and lax. On one visit, requests for a table wipe went unheeded. Knowledge of the Lilliputian wine list is scant across the board—unsurprising for a room drenched in pre-Prohibition tavern chic. But don’t let that dissuade you. The Chesterfield is well worth a visit or two, if for nothing else than to experience a golden age American barroom sans Chesterfield smog. And martinis are a far better match for artichokes than wine is anyway. Just ask Dorothy Parker.
1404 Main St.
Open daily, 11am-2am
The beakers and flasks peppering the bar—retro bellying up. Ask the bartender for a Bride of Frankenstein to leverage the glassware motif.
The Classics Re-Crafted chapter, a slate of golden age drink sequels for the iSet
Don’t Save Room
For dessert. The Chesterfield doesn’t serve it. But they do mix chocolate drinks.