One Chicago bar owner is trying something new to keep her business going during the novel coronavirus pandemic. Sophie Huterstein is the owner of the Darling, a bar and lounge perched along West Loop’s Randolph Restaurant Row. Last week, she and her crew tested the Darling to Go, a unique food and drink package designed to bring home the bar experience and give those in quarantine a little joy.
The Darling is 16 months old, and known for a lively second-floor space outfitted with DJs and Victorian-style decor. Distilling the bar into a box presented a number of challenges for Huterstein and chef Petra Matos: For one, bars can’t legally sell mixed drinks to go in Illinois. Cocktail kits are permitted, but most of the drinks the Darling sells use more than one type of alcohol. Forcing customers to buy multiple bottles would drive them away due to cost, Huterstein says.
While she and Matos mulled over the idea for weeks, Huterstein began researching the safeguards currently being used by bars and restaurants around the world. She found that Hong Kong made good use of QR Codes, the matrix barcodes that cameras scan to bring up content on smartphones. While many find them annoying, Huterstein says she saw that they could be a way to “incorporate technology in a very functional manner” in a world worried abut unnecessary contact.
The package was meant to go beyond “just delivering food and drink,” Huterstein says. But in order to do that, she and Matos needed something that would convey a special feeling to customers. So Huterstein tapped into Chicago’s thriving performance community, and she and Matos eventually came up with the Darling To Go, a dinner-and-drinks kit augmented with flowers, musical performances, candles, and an LED projector. Now available to be picked up at the bar or delivered for $10, it costs $65 per person, with a minimum two-person order. Folks gets an amuse-bouche (vegetable chips with sour cream and onion dip), appetizer (short rib beignets), a main course (cauliflower crust pizza with pesto, pecorino and mozzarella, cherry tomatoes, basil, and bacon, to be heated in the oven), and dessert (chocolate mousse). The meal is rounded out with macaroons, along with a bottle of bubbly. Vegetarian options are also available.
After trying it on Saturday night, I can say it’s a light, yet satisfying meal. Diners won’t be weighed down if (spoiler alert) you want to dance a little later. But the dinner isn’t what sets the package apart: You can scan a QR Code on the back of the menu and steam a video of a cabaret performance to your phone while you eat. The first performance comes from Miss Ammunition, recorded live at the Darling with proper safety precautions, masks and all. For those who miss going out for live performances, the five-minute-and-30-second act scratches the itch. The package also includes stemmed roses, petals, a plastic vase, plastic champagne glasses, and a pair of LED candles to add to the ambience.
After dessert, the menu instructs you to scan another QR Code that calls up a video featuring looped footage from the bar, accompanied by an hour-long DJ set from White Owl. Before you switch on the music, fire up the mini-LED projector that’s also included in the package. The battery-powered children’s toy will beam an image of a star-filled sky so that you can dance under the stars. All in all, it’s a cute quarantine date night.
Huterstein believes this is the first package of its kind in Chicago, and says that customers have already sent it as a gift to friends whose weddings have been canceled by the pandemic. In the future, she may offer add-ons so that customers can grab an extra bottle of rosé or other libations; in the meantime, she’s doing a special for Mother’s Day where they’ll offer chocolate truffles. She hopes that other venues will copy the idea — who, she asks, could resist the magic of watching a performance from Andersonville’s Chicago Magic Lounge in the comfort and safety of their own home?
A native of England who went to school at Northwestern University in Evanston, Huterstein is a hospitality veteran who also owns Wellesbourne, a bar and lounge in L.A. She expects that Chicagoans will support bars and restaurants once the stay-at-home order is lifted and looks forward to seeing a rush in business. Right now, she imagines using her polite British accent to tell customers that they need to move along to make room for people waiting to be seated. But until then, she’s trying to keep her business afloat. She’s even delivering some of the packages herself to ensure everything goes well.
“You just like to make people happy, you threw the parties when you were younger, you love it when someone eats something and smiles,” she says.
The Darling To Go, 905 W. Randolph Street, available Thursday through Sunday, $65 per person, two-person minimum, call (312) 285-2609.