LINCOLN PARK — Bradley Rubin, the son of a soda jerk, grew up pulling the levers on a fancy soda fountain just like his pop.
"Soda jerk was my father's first job when he was 16 years old, and he loved it. When I was a kid, he even bought a soda fountain with all the bells and whistles, and I learned how to use it,” Rubin said. "I've had a love affair with soda fountains my whole life.”
So it was only fitting that when Rubin went into the restaurant business that his place, Eleven City Diner in the South Loop, would include a soda fountain and a full-time "jerk” mixing thick ice cream shakes, crafting root beer floats and pouring Green Rivers.
Last year, when Rubin opened a second diner, Eleven Lincoln Park, 2301 N. Clark St., he stepped up his soda fountain game by adding a pair of small-batch craft root beers to the menus at both locations.
I'm a guy who loves a good root beer. So when I stumble on a place that serves one fancy craft root beer, it really makes my day.
When I spotted two fancy craft root beers on tap at Eleven City Diner, I was in heaven. And it's not just me.
Like fancy cocktails mixed by dudes with handlebar mustaches and craft beer brewed by bearded heavy-metal lovers, old-school craft sodas — especially root beers — are all the rage these days.
So Rubin partnered with a brewer to produce the sarsaparilla-flavoring made with pure cane sugar, Madagascar vanilla beans and either caramel or brown sugar that's aged in Merlot wine casks for a year before it's served in "bottomless” chilled mugs for $5.99.
Eleven City Diner's classic Keg root beer, poured from kegs adorned with 1941 Cadillac hood ornaments, has the rich, sweet flavor and rich caramel color that you'd expect in a classic soda.
And the Eleven City Blonde root beer — made with a hint of brown sugar instead of caramel — tastes sweeter than a classic root beer and has a pretty blonde amber color.
And for six bucks, they'll keep filling your mug until you're overcome with a pure cane sugar rush.
"It's all-you-can-drink, and boy, do people drink. It's crazy delicious,” Rubin said. "It's expensive stuff, so I'm not making a ton of money on it.”
Rubin, 44, said his diners were inspired by the iconic delis of his youth — D.B. Kaplan's, Belden Deli and Manny's — and ice cream shops like Margie's Candies in Logan Square.
"I always found what Betty at Kaufmann's and Kenny and his sons at Manny's are doing is very inspiring. At Margie's, the family has had a soda fountain for generations and that inspires me. So we're not reinventing the wheel or bringing back a lost art,” he said.
"But there is an art to [craft sodas] that ties into the whole romance and appreciation of the soda fountain. We're not wearing bow ties and having dandy mustaches and suspenders behind the counter and taking an uber-serious tone. But it's fun. And our customers come in and are having fun. That makes me happy.”
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