8 Spots for Kentucky Derby Fun in Chicago (I|O Godfrey)

Photo courtesy of I|O Godfrey.

They call it “The Greatest Two Minutes in Sports,” but the hoopla surrounding the annual running of the Kentucky Derby drags on for the whole first weekend in May. If you’re watching in Chicago rather than Kentucky, chances are you’ll still be sipping a mint julep and wearing a fetching hat of spectacular size, because that’s how one celebrates and honors the “Run for the Roses.”

This year, the 2018 Kentucky Derby will be run on Saturday, May 5, with a post time of 6:46 p.m. EDT (5:46 p.m. in Chicago). NBC will provide live coverage from 2:30-7:30 p.m. EDT direct from Churchill Downs in Louisville. There will be a ton of pre-event coverage on NBCSN for two days prior for the truly obsessed.

So what does all of this mean for you? Well, you’ve got choices. A number of Chicago spots are offering Derby Day Parties, or you could just make your own fun at one of the great whiskey bars around town. If you choose to hunker down at home with friends, you’ll probably want to mix up a big batch of frosty mint juleps served in these traditional silver tumblers. (Feeling adventurous? Here are some refreshing variations on the julep theme.) Fried chicken, potato salad, and biscuits would be the recommended dinner accompaniments, and don’t skimp on the strawberries.

Where to Derby:

III Forks

180 N. Field Blvd., Chicago, 312-938-4303

Kentucky Derby in Chicago: III Forks

III Forks’ Mint Julep (Photo courtesy of III Forks.)

This annual soirée, which also signals the opening of their rooftop lounge, starts at 3 p.m. Admission is free, but if you RSVP beforehand, you get a free themed cocktail. They encourage dressing up, Derby-style (seersucker suits for the guys, show-stopping hats for the ladies), and with a balmy high of 62 degrees currently predicted for that afternoon, you’ll be glad to know the cabanas have built-in heaters, and the outdoor fireplaces will be lit. There will be a “Win, Place, Show” raffle — win dining gift certificates and more — and $5 Maker’s Mark Mint Juleps and Jim Beam Bonded Old Fashioneds will be available.

Apogee Lounge

Dana Hotel and Spa, 2 W. Erie St., Chicago, 312-202-6060

Kentucky Derby in Chicago: Apogee Lounge

Photo courtesy of Apogee Lounge.

This is your chance to party 26 stories above bustling River North! Apogee hosts “The High-Stakes Party” from 1-7 p.m., and “eye-catching” Derby clothing is highly encouraged. General Admission tickets are $15 per person, and include two specialty drinks (Bulleit Bourbon Mint Juleps, Ketel One Vodka cocktails, Stella Artois beer, and more) and six betting tokens to be used for the various Derby-themed games on offer. Group Table Box Suites ($140-$300) are also available. Prizes will be awarded for “Best Hat” and “Best Dressed,” plus a “Winner Takes All” grand prize. Do you feel lucky today?

Booth One

1301 N. State Parkway, Chicago, 312-649-0535

Kentucky Derby in Chicago: Booth One

Booth One cocktails (Photo by Christina Slaton.)

A rollicking “Bourbon and Brims” watch party will be taking place in the Library Bar (just across the lobby from Booth One) at the Ambassador Chicago from 2-6 p.m. Admission is free, but please RSVP. Look for $8 Mint Juleps, horse racing games, best-dressed prizes, and live music provided by DJ Con-Text. If you’re really a planner, make a late brunch res that day at Booth One to get the party started, then walk over to keep the Derby Day fun going.

Gallagher Way (formerly known as the Park at Wrigley)

3637 N. Clark St., Chicago, 773-388-8260

Billed as Chicago’s “largest outdoor Derby party,” this ”Day at the Races” event is free and open to all. It is sponsored by Maker’s Mark and Budweiser, so expect branded Mint Juleps and plenty of Bud on tap. While you’re waiting for the big event, which will be shown on the massive video board overlooking Gallagher Way, try your hand at various garden games (horseshoes, cornhole, and a Pony Hop race among them) and graze on bourbon-glazed meatballs, pimento cheese dip, and Kentucky Hot Brown sliders, all Louisville favorites and available for purchase. Dance around in your Derby finery to live music from Get Up with The Get Downs from 3-5 p.m. Gates will open at 2:30 p.m.

I|O Godfrey

127 W. Huron St., Chicago, 312-374-1830

Are you ready to “Get Down and Derby” at River North’s Godfrey Hotel? This will be the fifth annual Derby Day viewing party at the rooftop hot spot. Thre will be plenty of TVs and a large video wall for your viewing pleasure, along with Southern-accented food and beverages, including a slushy-style Mint Julep. Pick your own mint garnish from the live mint wall (yes, it’s a thing), and jockey (I’ve got my own puns, thank you) for one of the “Best Hat” or “Best Dressed” prizes. Tickets are getting scarce for this one, but some General Admission tickets ($50) and Expedited Entry Admission ($75) are still available. Food and drink are included.

Sable Kitchen + Bar

Kimpton Palomar Hotel, 505 N. State St., Chicago, 312-755-9704

Kentucky Derby in Chicago: Sable

Sable’s Penelope Peach Cobblestone (Photo courtesy of Sable Kitchen + Bar.)

Watch the races from the comfort of this lauded cocktail bar and restaurant with one of the best whiskey selections in Chicago. Head bartender Mike Jones will be mixing up special themed cocktails ($14) including the Sebastian Oxblood Saddle Strap (sherry, amaro, rum, lemon, strawberry, and bitters) and the Penelope Peach Cobblestone (bourbon, Giffard Peche de Vigne, lemon, blackberry, and basil) as well as the de rigueur star of the day, a boozy Mint Julep. Admission is free, which leaves you spending money for chef Amber Lancaster’s Southern-inspired shared plates, like Pimento Cheese Deviled Eggs ($6/$8), Bourbon Pulled Pork Sliders ($12), and Bourbon Peach Pie Pops ($9).

Saint Lou’s Assembly

644 W. Lake St., Chicago, 312-600-0600

Kentucky Derby in Chicago: Saint Lou's Assembly

Photo courtesy of Saint Lou’s Assembly.

Saint Lou’s backyard patio is the starting point for the first Run for the Rosé, an obstacle run for Chicago’s restaurant industry professionals. Watch while your favorite servers, barbacks, mixologists, and cooks (from Little Goat, Momotaro, The Publican, Dusek’s Board & Beer, and other popular spots) race through the obstacles while holding a tray of rosé without spilling! There will also be an interactive horse racing video game, a plethora of TVs for viewing, Jim Beam Mint Juleps ($8), Hot Brown Benedicts ($14), and a “Best Hat” contest. Admission is free; the event runs from 2-7 p.m.

Smoke Daddy Wrigleyville

Hotel Zachary, 3636 N. Clark St., Chicago, 773-227-2583

Kentucky Derby in Chicago: Smoke Daddy Wrigleyville

Photo by Huge Galdones.

They’ve only been open for a minute, but this new location of Smoke Daddy is ready for their first Kentucky Derby Party! They’ve got two floors of televisions and a kick-ass sound system, so you won’t miss a minute of the action. Your $75 ticket also gets you heavy passed apps, premium open bar, live music from the Derby Day Ramblers (that’s specific!), and a chance at winning some choice bottles of bourbon. Take special care with your hat selection, as the “Best Hat” contest winner will score a two-night stay at the gorgeous new Hotel Zachary.


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Julie Chernoff, Make It Better’s dining editor since its inception in 2007, graduated from Yale University with a degree in English — which she speaks fluently — and added a professional chef’s degree from the California Culinary Academy. She has worked for Boz ScaggsRick Bayless and Wolfgang Puck (not all at the same time); and sits on the boards of Les Dames d’Escoffier International and Northlight Theatre. She and husband Josh are empty nesters since adult kids Adam and Leah have flown the coop. Rosie the Cockapoo relishes the extra attention.




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