There is a secret hidden on North Damen Ave, down the street from the subway station and tucked away in plain sight. Its as close to a speakeasy as I am likely to see in my life, and this is one of the few things I will say this about but I hope it stays a secret. My food philosphy usually has me eating and drinking anything and everything that the locals are eating. I will gladly stand in line for an hour to eat a Chicago dog or New York pizza, I will even drink Arkansas moonshine but there is something about cocktails that screams exclusivity. I do not feel that drinking saccharine-sweet umbrellas drinks shilled out to thirsty tourists or drunk college kids on vacation counts as experiencing culture. If there is ever a local cocktail, mint juleps in the American south for instance, I will of course try it. But when it comes to cocktails better really is better and I will seek out the best not necessarily the local-favorite or most drunk. That being said when my friend offered to take me to the 3rd best cocktail bar in the country according to GQ.com I was elated.
Trying to find Violet Hour was an adventure in of itself because like every good speakeasy, it was well hidden. And by that I mean it was right in front of my face, and after only several times of my friend explaining exactly where the entrance to the bar was I found it. Finally we arrived still agasp at the hidden doorway. The only consistent sign for Violet Hour is the light bulb placed above the door, otherwise the artwork on the exterior changes on a regular basis and the door is not evident unless you know where to look. What we walked into can only be described as sexy. I rarely utter that word since it has seemed to lose all of its non-sexual meaning. It was a dimmly lit, curveous, soft, elegant and beautifully colored interior. The music was jarring at times especially since it seemed to be a very eclectic mix of types but it was merely a background noise to the conversations and discussions of cocktails my friends and I were having at our booth.
Violet Hour takes its name from a passage in De Voto's "The Hours" praising the cocktail:
"This is the violet hour, the hour of hush and wonder, when the affections glow again and valor is reborn, when the shadows deepen magically along the edge of the forest and we believe that, if we watch carefully, at any moment we may see the unicorn."
And in this speakeasy-style bar cocktails are the end all and be all. Painstaking attention is paid to every aspect of the drink from the homemade bitters and syrups down to the shape and size of the ice cubes. Like a good meal, a good drink depends entirely on the freshness and quality of the ingredients. Use the wrong type of whiskey with a Manhattan or the wrong bitters on a Hush and Wonder and you can change the entire taste profile of the drink and risk throwing the balance of the drink off. The drinks at Violet Hour are unparalleled, the atmosphere transport you back to a time where cocktails were first taking shape and is a nice escape from the traditional bar scene, at least the one here in Ann Arbor. You know where the more booze in a drink the better and the bartenders have to spend most of their time dealing with drunk customers and not on the drink itself. Violet Hour also refuses to let anyone in beyond the seating that is available, that means that you can enjoy your cocktail peacefully, without being crammed between that annoying business man and the mom with three kids who is out for the night and it shows. Violet Hour is a tranquil spot where you can sit and enjoy a cocktail or two with good friends and be amazed at the taste of real cocktails how they are supposed to taste.