"This is a total — maybe more than most — 'save this bar' story."
Dive bars are closing in masse across the U.S. But in Chicago, bartenders are balancing progressing the city's drinking culture with preserving its past. From a boarded-up tavern on Division Street to a decrepit dive in the heart of Ukrainian Village, the road to success looks very different for three owners, who tapped Chicago's deeply-rooted pub culture to reopen neglected or forgotten watering holes. The end result, hopefully, keeps pint glasses full and customers returning for years to come.
Matt Eisler and Kevin Heisner built an empire uncovering some of the west side's oldest and most beautiful bars. "Maybe there's a handful of these gems in every neighborhood and, fortunately for me, I spend enough time kicking sidewalks in this neighborhood that I've been lucky enough to find a few," Eisler says. They started in 2009 with Bar Deville. "We bought this old bar, didn't do anything to the bar except hire a guy with a razor blade and a toothbrush to clean and restore it."
"Maybe there's a handful of these gems in every neighborhood and, fortunately for me, I spend enough time kicking sidewalks in this neighborhood that I've been lucky enough to find a few."
They followed a similar minimalist model when opening Sportsman's Club in 2013, this time keeping the name the same in order to pay tribute to the Polish dive that previously occupied the space. A new cocktail menu features four daily drinks as well as a house amaro mix. Craft beers and a reel-to-reel player round out the upgrades. Perhaps the most important addition, according to Eisler, is the friendly barkeeps Wade McElroy and Jeff Donahue. Together, they ensure quality service as well as cocktails and the bar has quickly became a hospitality industry favorite.
Heisler Hospitality's latest project Queen Mary has the added amenity of an in-the-flesh fixture to oversee its transformation from boarded-up bar to nautical-inspired tavern. It is, of course, named after said fixture, Mary Kafka, who worked behind the bar in the 1970s and now owns the building. Under her watchful eye, the original wood paneling was repaired, booths were outfitted with cushions that resemble life preservers, and bronze chandeliers hung over the antique bar. Here, the drink menu also takes a cue from the seven seas, with a navy-strength old fashioned, daily grog, and assorted fortified wines permanently featured on the menu.
However, what most don't know is the team sat on the property for over two years, while working with the neighborhood to rezone it in a way that would allow them to apply for a liquor license. "To be quite candid, the financial upside associated with an 1,100-square-foot place isn't all that great," Eisler says. "But we've agreed that we want to do stuff that feeds the soul." These bars are supported by regulars during the week and a livelier crowd on the weekend, while more profitable concepts such as throwback tavern Lone Wolf and Trenchermen restaurant fund new projects, such as a music-focused bar in Logan Square and veggie-centric Bad Hunter in the West Loop.
The Gut Rehab
"This is a total — maybe more than most — 'save this bar' story," Isaac Liberman says about the recently reopened EZ Inn. "Without us coming in here, this place would have gone out of business and lost its liquor license." When Lieberman stumbled upon EZ Inn, it had been closed for two years, following a 40-year run under the husband-and-wife team Eva and Zenon (also known as EZ). There was a hole in the floor behind the bar, it smelled like urine, and only one draft line worked.
After meeting with contractors and designers, who all had lavish plans for the 1,500-square-foot space, Liberman realized the perfect design and concept were under his fingertips. The original wood bar greets guests. A wall divides the drinking area from a dance floor, which is surrounded by new leather booths. Fresh wood paneling covers the walls, an ornate tiled ceiling has been recovered and refurbished to the building's circa-1907 glory, and a vintage jukebox plays mixes contributed by regulars. "We didn't change anything about it other than the cosmetics," Isaac says. The Old Style sign outside as well as the bar's name remain unchanged.
"The focus is not so much on what we're putting in the glass, but as to how we're making you feel when we put that glass in front of you."
The beverage program is equally restrained with only one bottle of each spirit represented on the back bar (with the exception of the three whiskies). Assorted "Fizzy Boozies" — spiked housemade sodas that are served on draft — are designed for flavor and efficiency. So the "Pisco Cream Soda" or "Mezcal Peach" can be served in the same time it takes for the DJ to flip a record. A Long Island Iced Tea is the first cocktail on the menu — there to remind guests that there is no pretention served at this bar. Meanwhile the 3Z — a can of Old Style, shot of scotch, and bag of potato chips for $6 also known as an "Extra Value Meal" — pays tribute to boilermaker culture.
"We've got decent drafts, I've got okay cocktails, but the focus is not so much on what we're putting in the glass, as it is on how we're making you feel when we put that glass in front of you," says bartender Matt "Peaches" Frederick. "There's nothing remarkable tasting about a three dollar Old Style. But for some reason, it tastes way better here than next door or across the street, because we genuinely care about the people who come in here."
The Lost Cause
Not all bars are worth saving. Case-in-point: the glass-ball-covered watering hole known, appropriately, as Marble. It existed for three years in all of its kitschy glory — oversized marbles glued to tables, hundreds of marbles inlayed in the bar, and marble decals stuck to the walls — and then brothers and bartenders Christopher and Calvin Marty purchased it. Rather than preserve its particular genre of charm, they decided to tear it down and rebuild in the style of an old-school bar. But not before getting to know the crowd that called it home.
"The dirty secret of operating a new business where an old business used to be is, if you're going to change the culture, it offends everyone who used to be there."
The Marty brothers spent six months behind Marble's bar, incorporating new cocktails to the menu and meeting regulars, who were not shy about expressing their distaste for change. "Some people just can't drink a three dollar beer while watching you stir a ten dollar cocktail," Christopher says. "It just offends their sensibility and they won't hang out in place like that." Even a year later, after renovations that transformed Best Intentions into something like your grandma's basement meets Milwaukee-chic, they still get hate mail from disgruntled former regulars.
"The dirty secret of operating a new business where an old business used to be is, if you're going to change the culture, it offends everyone who used to be there," Christopher admits. "Step one is change what you carry and raise your prices, because a lot of times a failed bar or restaurant caters to a clientele that doesn't necessarily drive a profitable enterprise." A new crowd of regulars, which is made up of many former customers, frequents the bar that feels like it's been there for decades.
So what is the appeal in drinking in a bar that feels like a spit-shined rusty nickel? Christopher believes, "It's a craving to authenticity, which is a hallmark of this generation, because the things that are new in our time are, for the most part, pretty inhuman. Technological and scientific advancements are where it's at, but holding an iPhone is not the same as holding an Old Fashioned."