For their next tavern restoration project, Heisler Hospitality's Wade McElroy and Jeff Donahue will give Chicago drinkers the opportunity to drink like British sailors in a bar that has been closed since 1975. Queen Mary, coming to the western edge of Wicker Park's Division Street strip (2125 W. Division) this summer, will be an unpretentious cocktail bar in the mold of Sportsman's Club but with a set menu based on booze the British Royal Navy drank on ships and ports around the world, according to McElroy and Donahue.
"Jeff and I like to look into history, and one of the things that piqued our interest is the history of maritime, particularly with ties to the British Royal Navy," McElroy says. "Building off that base, we had an idea to create kind of a rambunctious sailor's tavern, channeling the idea we have at (Sportsman's Club): very revelrous and lively but with more of a cocktail focus."
McElroy and Donahue, the 2014 Eater Awards winners for bartenders of the year who recently became directors of beverage operations for Heisler and will oversee the bar programs at Heisler's numerous 2015 openings, will focus on traditional British booze as well as drinks that were available at the many ports around the world that were once held by the British. This means plenty of gin, rum, fortified wines, and simple beers.
Queen Mary will offer a menu of 8-10 cocktails, including a "tea-for-the-table" shared cocktail, a classic gin martini, and a navy strength old fashioned. A daily "grog" (an early punch built on spirit, sour and sweet flavors; often made with gin or rum, lime, and sometimes light beer) will be a focus. The rest of the cocktails will change seasonally, while just two classic English beers will be available on tap—a porter and a mild—that can be blended into a black and tan. They're planning to have a local brewery specially brew these, as well as have a local distillery make a house "pink gin" (Plymouth-style gin with Angostura bitters).
Heisler partner Kevin Heisner will once again design Queen Mary, employing a nautical theme which McElroy and Donahue say is "not at all tiki" and "won't feel like a theme park." The dusty time-capsule tavern, dormant for 40 years following the murder of the previous owner, is an 1,100-square-foot "shotgun space" with a long classic Chicago bar on the left side. They're planning to build a bench outside for Mary, the bar's namesake, neighborhood fixture and former owner's wife who closed the bar following his death.
The holdup on the space, which Heisler has been paying rent on for two years, has been the zoning. "It's been closed for 40 years and there hasn't been a liquor license attached to it since before Chicago zoning even existed," Donahue says. "It's not zoned for a tavern license and that's been the issue. It's not built to house a kitchen." Despite that, McElroy and Donahue say Queen Mary will "lean on a food element" if that's the only way to get it open.
Echoing Heisler's recent mission, McElroy and Donahue's passion for Chicago tavern history, particularly the history behind this bar, is apparent. "You have a neighborhood tavern that hasn't been open for 40 years and has been forgotten by time and lost all of its life and vigor, and to come in and introduce something new, is something that we will strive to replicate with every new project that we do. How many closed doors have beautiful bars behind them that have been forgotten by time?"
Look for them to introduce something new to this space in early summer.