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Peer Inside Billy Dec's Ay Chiwowa!, Now Softly Open

[Photos: Timothy Hiatt]

Nostalgia is a powerful thing. It can make people do the darnedest things, such as make one of the biggest restaurant and bar owners in town purchase the shuttered space he worked at as a 21-year-old bouncer, with no clue what to do with it. That is what Billy Dec did, and with a little help from the public, Ay Chiwowa! was born. And now open.

But what is Ay Chiwowa!? According to Dec, it's "putting a Rockit Ranch spin on the dive that it once was, with a Mexican twist." The 2000 square-foot Martini Ranch was a classic Chicago bar and club for 20 years, a place where the Bulls would bring their championship trophies first. "It was my last job," Dec says. "I knew every inch of that place."

When purchasing the space, fueled by Dec's nostalgic urgings, the Rockit partners (Arturo Gomez, Brad Young, Billy Dec) took public polls to decide the concept. 39 percent asked for a Mexican-themed dive, and that's what they got.

But it's not that Mexican. The cocktail and food options are: Gomez brought 80 tequilas over from his personal office collection, they're behind the bar now. Four tequila-driven kegged cocktails base the cocktail list and Senor Chicharones is the attention-grabber, made up of tequila, bacon syrup, fresh orange and lemon juices, and chipotle tabasco. Oh, and a massive chicharones (Mexican fried pork rind) "garnish." They're narrowing down the food options to 20 taco, tostada, and torta choices.

But the drinks and food are where the Mexican themes end. "It was very important from the get-go to fight that urge to buy into stereotypes and conditioning that most people have about places that happen to have a Mexican food list or cocktail list," Dec says. "We steered away from sombreros and piñatas." The entertainment is mostly jukebox-driven, with some DJ's later at night. It's a 4 a.m./5 a.m. liquor license, so it'll be both an after-work spot for local designers and a divey club late night. They're only open Thursday to Sunday to start.

The space holds four small rooms, including a small patio in rear for the summer. A collaboration with a local street artist spawned the interior: part modern flash, part comfortable lounge. The staff is all from Underground, which just closed for renovation until May. This a definite breakaway from Underground and other Rockit themes, however.

"When we started Rockit eight years ago, literally everyone said 'you're crazy to do it in a neighborhood no one ever goes to and we don't get your concept,'" Dec says. People may say that about Ay Chiwowa! too, but it's not stopping them this time either. The full opening is the weekend of February 15.
· Ay Chiwowa! [Official Site]
· All Coverage of Ay Chiwowa! [~ECHI~]
· All Coverage of Billy Dec [~ECHI~]

¡Ay Chiwowa!

311 W Chicago Ave, Chicago, IL 60654 312-643-3200 Visit Website