The enterprising barmen responsible for Heisler Hospitality’s Sportsman’s Club in Ukrainian Village have formed their own hospitality group. Jeff Donahue and Wade McElroy have created Leisure Activities and their first move was buying The Orbit Room. That’s the Avondale bar at 2959 N. California Ave. that’s been around for 10 years and features one of the city’s best-kept secret patios.
“It’s our hope that we’re kind of shining a new light on this great place so people who may have forgotten it over the years are able to rediscover it,” said McElroy.
Donahue and McElroy, who were Eater Chicago’s bartenders of the year in 2014, have operated the bar quietly for a few days. The Orbit Room’s been around for a decade, and the purchase provides a solid jumping-off point for the new company. Donahue and McElroy are used to opening bars and creating drink lists. They also carry a reputation for reshaping and revitalizing old bars, assuaging a common local fear that beloved old bars will be overrun by trendy new spots. McElroy and Donahue’s most-recent project was Larry’s in Uptown. The two realize it’s a delicate balance in taking over a bar like Orbit Room, one that’s been a community anchor for the neighborhood.
They’ve hired former Carriage House chef Mark Steuer to develop a new Orbit Room menu. He’ll keep the fan-favorite macaroni and cheese as well as the wings. Steuer’s added daily supper specials and regular menu items like a seasonal heirloom tomato sandwich. They’ve also gotten rid of a freezer. Not only did that free up more space to make cocktails, but it also shows their new kitchen focus on using fresh ingredients: Forget frozen chicken tenders. The gig gave Steuer something to do as he prepares to open his new restaurant in West Town.
The philosophy with the food extends to the beverages which are about “really approachable drinks done with the highest possible quality.” There’s eight house cocktails on the list (see below), including a take on the tiki favorite, the Jet Pilot.
Leisure Activities won’t just operate bars; they will also provide consulting services. McElroy and Donahue want to help would-be bar owners with their drink menus or aid them with PR. There’s an entrepreneurial spirit brewing for the pair who have worked in many facets of the restaurant and bar industries, and they’ll also continue to work with their old bosses at Heisler. Expect to hear about more projects in the future. Not all of them will be fixer-uppers. Donahue pointed out that they built up Estereo, the breezy triangular-shaped bar in Logan Square, from the ground up.
Effectively immediately, you can check out the revamped Orbit Room in Avondale and read about their new food and drink options below.