Barrington's Park Avenue Wine Bar was sleek, chic and, frankly, a little intimidating. And it wasn't just the poached octopus on the menu that made it seem that way. So when the stylish wine bar went out over the summer, owners replaced it with The Annex -- a still pretty, less-pricey cocktail lounge with a more casual and accessible vibe.
Motif: You'll find The Annex in the same building as the popular McGonigal's Pub; though they're both owned by the McGonigals, the two spots have decidedly different atmospheres.
The Annex205 Park Ave., Barrington, (847) 382-3900, theannexlounge.com
Hours: 4 p.m. to 1 a.m. Sunday through Thursday; 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. Friday and Saturday
Light birch woodwork and exposed brick walls give The Annex a warm, light, relaxing feel. Simple black tables and a long cream-colored bar keep the decor clean and contemporary. And while there are TVs, they aren't the focus.
Crowd: There was a mix of ages on the Saturday we went, with couples and groups enjoying cocktails and dinner. Even as the place started to fill, The Annex remained quiet enough for easy conversation.
Service: Our waitress was prompt, friendly and helpful. She checked back frequently to make sure we liked what we had ordered. The staff appeared to be both welcoming and attentive, from the hostess who greeted us when we first came in to the servers who helped deliver our food.
Food: Our waitress brought a complementary basket of salt and vinegar chips for us to munch on while we studied the menu and waited for our drinks. They were a tad greasy, but addictive nonetheless.
The eclectic menu features entrees, shareable snacks, salads, sandwiches and flatbreads. There's also a section devoted to toasts and wraps so you can opt for chorizo and hominy grits or waldorf chicken served with your choice of toast points or lettuce leaves. You can also order off McGonigal's menu, expanding your options to include Irish favorites, extra sandwich selections and traditional bar starters -- such as chicken wings or their killer-good spinach artichoke dip.
We started with The Annex's mushroom and goat cheese flatbread. Small pillows of cheese were set atop a generous layer of flavorful, rich pesto. We bypassed the burger and went with the baja salmon sandwich; nicely grilled fish came with tasty saffron mayo and tomato salsa and was served with fries.
Liquid consumption: About 15 different craft beers are available by the bottle or on tap, and there are a number of wines by the glass. Classic cocktails are the focus, though, so we gave a couple a try. The Annex's version of grown-up lemonade got its kick from vodka infused on site and black raspberry cassis. The syrup was strong for our liking, but we loved both the martinis we tried and would happily experiment with others on our next visit. The traditional dirty martini was well made and served with three blue cheese-stuffed olives. And the lemon drop martini boasted the perfect balance of flavors -- not too tart, not too sweet.
Music: Expect some piped-in pop and light rock, but managers are happy to take requests. Whatever is playing, though, doesn't drown out conversation.
Parking: Street parking is available.
Overall: McGonigal's is a fun, festive pub, and now The Annex provides a quieter escape with great martinis in a soothing setting.