These Art-Filled Bars Feel Like We’re Drinking in a Museum
At these six spots, artwork is as meticulously curated as the drinks list.
“The creative process for a new menu always starts with the artwork,” says Tia Barrett, the beverage director of Esmé in Chicago.
When Esmé’s rotating art exhibit included a three-piece series by photographer Paul Octavious, for instance, she mirrored the theme in the wine list. “I showcased the Grenache grape three ways—Grenache, Garnacha and Grenache Blanc—to demonstrate how the varietal can vary and change the same way thateach of the photos did.”
Subsequently, Esmé launched a collaboration with Kitchen Possible, a nonprofit devoted to empowering children through cooking.
“I used Kitchen Possible’s curriculum and the idea of ‘teamwork’ as inspiration for a cocktail showcasing cherries nearing the end of their season, apples entering their peak, and how the two complement each other,” Barrett says.
Barrett is one of several drinks professionals tapping into local artists to create striking pieces for their spaces and highlighting centuries-old artwork. Here, six spots where the artwork and beverages both take center stage.
Situated in San Francisco’s iconic Palace Hotel, this restaurant and bar opened in 1909 when the property was rebuilt after the 1906 earthquake. The space is named for the 6-by-15-foot Maxfield Parrish painting that hangs directly above the bar. In it, Parrish depicts the Pied Piper leading upwards of 30 characters (a few of which bear striking resemblance to the artist’s family and to Parrish himself) out of the town of Hamelin, Germany.
The piece has been displayed in Pied Piper for more than a century and is important to many who work there, says general manager Clifton Clark.
“Some of our bartenders have worked at the Pied Piper for decades and remain very connected to the history of the painting. They are forever mindful of paying homage to the past while incorporating ingredients and techniques of the moment.”
In May, Fitz’s Bar launched a multisensory cocktail experience called the Theory of Colour. The concept? To help guests determine their ideal cocktail by looking at an array of images.
The drinks menu features 14 treatments of the same 17th century painting. Guests are encouraged to select the image that most appeals to them, and, from there, bartenders recommend a cocktail accordingly. Drinks fall into three categories: pure, harmonious, and intense. Options include the Ménage à Trois, a “harmonious” cocktail made with mezcal, coconut-infused gin, and fig cordial; and the Rothko’s Abyss, an “intense” drink that features whiskey, vermouth, and coffee beans.
This rooftop bar in downtown Chicago was named for mogul and philanthropist Cindy Pritzker, so it’s only fitting that her portrait is prominently displayed in the bar’s private dining room. It’s an original Andy Warhol and provides a colorful accent to the drinks list, which includes twists on classics like the Paloma Colorada, made with Fernet, as well as original cocktails and non-alcoholic drinks. So long as the private dining room isn’t booked, guests can reserve a table in the space and toast Cindy’s likeness.
Named for artist and caricaturist Gerald Scarfe, Scarfes Bar features his work throughout the space, from the walls to the tables and even menus. As part of the venue’s aptly named “Off the Wall” menu, custom-made figurines based on Scarfes’ drawings adorn the tables, so you might raise a glass alongside David Attenborough, Adele, or Elton John.
“Our bar is a place where people can have fun and not take life too seriously,” says bar director Martin Siska. “Gerald likes to describe the bar as his ‘personal art gallery,’ and we try to complement that witty atmosphere with cocktails that evoke a sense of play in their names and colors.”
The drinks menu takes a similarly playful approach to naming conventions. Case in point? The Roadrunner, a nod to race car driver Lewis Hamilton made with Amarico, Martini Vibrante, and fresh pear juice.
While Chateau La Coste is more winery than bar, it feels worthy of inclusion here due to “Rail Car,” an epic art installation by singer-songwriter Bob Dylan.
Chateau La Coste’s owner, Patrick McKillen, is interested in metalwork and admires Dylan, and so the two decided to launch this project in May 2022. In addition to sculpture, the exhibition includes 24 of Dylan’s paintings from a series, “Drawn Blank in Provence,” based on drawings he’d made while traveling through Europe and America.
Dylan’s work is in good company. Works by Claude Monet, Henri Matisse, and Marc Chagall surround it. If you’d like to contemplate it over a glass, there are four restaurants and bars on the property: Tadao Ando Café Restaurant, La Terrasse, Restaurant Vanina, and Francis Mallmann.
Each season, the team at this fine dining restaurant partners with a different visual artist and chef Jenner Tomaska creates a multi-course tasting menu inspired by that work. In addition to photographer Paul Octavious and Kitchen Possible, previous collaborations include work by abstract and figurative painter Courtnery Shoudis.
To enhance the Kitchen Possible experience, Esmé is displaying artwork by students at nearby Francis W. Parker elementary school alongside pieces by local artists Griffin Goodman and Zelene Jiang Schlosberg.