Opening a bar during normal times is a Herculean effort, especially in Chicago where owners have to clear mounds of bureaucratic red tape. Opening during a pandemic only increases the difficulty level. The owners of the Hi-Lo, an upcoming bar planned to open next week in Humboldt Park, have been waiting to debut their new bar since 2017, and now the opening is finally here.
The tavern’s name is meaningful to owner Isaac Liberman. The space consists of two buildings, a tall structure and a short one. The A-frame gives drinkers a breezy place that’s protected from any rain, a place to hang out and drink a glass of natural wine or a non-alcoholic spritz. The space inside the taller building (which was built around 1898) is where folks can come in early with their laptops and get some work done, away from winter’s elements, and sip on a caffeinated and non-alcoholic beverages.
“It’s the idea of going somewhere like Soho House, a membership-only club, where you want to hang out for the day,” Liberman says. “But without the membership.”
The Hi-Lo won’t offer coffee, but Liberman, who also owns the EZ Inn in Ukrainian Village, formulated some special drinks to perk customers up. The Hi-Lo is intended as a spot where customers can get some work in the early hours and linger, then grab one of 18 cocktails when the sun sets. There will also be a smorgasbord of low-ABV drinks on hand so folks can imbibe without losing focus. That, again, goes back to the tavern’s name.
“You’re going out to get something done,” Liberman says. “You’re going for work with a sketch pad or notebook, you don’t want to get wasted.”
While the bar isn’t beer focused, the draft lines will offer something special. Tearing a page out of McSorley’s Old Ale House’s (the famous bar in New York that opened in 1854) playbook, only two draft beers will be offered: “light” or “dark.” Other draft options include cider, rosé, and cava. The cocktails were created by Carley Gaskin of Hospitality 201, a Chicago-based consultancy.
The EZ Inn is a prime example of a bar owner coming in and giving a dive a little TLC, sprucing it up an old tavern without alienating too many of its regular clientele (remodels are always tricky; long-time customers sometimes feel they’re getting pushed out as owners try to broaden their customer base).
The mission at the Hi-Lo is a little different. Before Liberman took over, Garcia’s Place — a restaurant with a food stand — occupied the space. The layout provided Liberman a unique opportunity and it took him a while to formulate a plan to link both spaces. He scrapped plans for food, preferring to create a patio space (Liberman said it didn’t make sense due to space constraints; there’s not enough room to build out a kitchen). The bar encourages customers to order food from a nearby restaurant including burgers or chicken sandwiches from Lucy’s.
The planning had nothing to do with the pandemic as COVID-19 encouraged outdoor seating, even during Chicago’s snowy winters. The indoor bar has room for about 20, while the 2,000-square-foot patio behind and under the A-frame has room for 80 and there’s also a brick fireplace. Each space has a 25-foot long bar.
While Liberman came up with the concept, he entrusted the women of Siren Betty to assist with the design. Liberman says the firm, whose credits include Giant, Tortello, and Claudia, proved to be good collaborators, complementing his vision for the space.
Opening the Hi-Lo has been a challenge for Liberman, but he said he never gave up: “I’m so passionate about the project, there’s kind of no stopping me.” The space had remained vacant for 12 years until Liberman took custody in 2017.
The bar should open next week.
The Hi-Lo, 1108-10 N. California Avenue, planned for an October 8 opening.