Fear was a theme over Halloween weekend at Wiener’s Circle, Chicago’s legendary hot dog stand, which unveiled a remodeled space and began serving wieners, burgers, and cheese fries for the first time since December 2020. The Lincoln Park stand no longer has a rear parking lot as ownership built out a back bar with draft beer, boozy slushies, patio tables, and overhead heaters.
The Wiener’s Circle has been famously decorated for Halloween with past themes including McDowell’s from Coming to America and a Ferris Bueller’s Day Off-themed costume. For opening day on Saturday, a “Krusty Burger” sign hung outside, a tribute to the TV clown from The Simpsons. Krusty is based on Chicago’s very own Bozo the Clown. How meta.
For this weekend preview, customers gingerly approached the window wondering if they were walking into a treehouse of horrors. Would their beloved and foul-mouthed hot dog stand be transformed into an Instagrammable nightmare overtaken by influencers and Edison bulbs? Also, Wiener’s Circle can be an animated place after the bars close and people rush out for a late-night bite. What would happen to the stand’s ambience with a liquor license in hand?
Designers didn’t touch the front of the restaurant. There are no menus flashed on flatscreens or QR codes. The menu letterboard, furnished by Pepsi, was left intact with the shakes, charburgers, and the restaurant’s signature Chicago-style chardogs all remaining. No, there’s no new burger bowl or any new bells and whistles.
The back of the restaurant is where the bar stands. Management wanted to create a community playground — right now there’s a basketball hoop and eventually they want space for kids to play games like four square. Ownership says the building needed repairs and updates to the kitchen and bathrooms. And they wanted more patio seating.
The space isn’t complete, but for Halloween weekend, the back morphed to Moe’s Tavern, named for Homer Simpson’s favorite bar. “Duff Pilsner” was on draft with a Ravinia Brewing brew masquerading as the cartoon’s No. 1 beer. A bartender also poured frosé (which was called the “Basic Bitch”). Sadly, though management wanted to, no Flaming Moe’s were served. That’s a cocktail that was lit on fire on the TV show and named after the bar’s proprietor, Moe Szylak. Zach Osipczuk (Graduate Hotels) created a drink menu akin to an arena or theater. Management calls it “concession style” saying it’s going to created a memorable experience, allowing customers to enjoy the hot dog stand in a totally new way.
Beyond the remodeling, the other fear stemmed from customers scarred by the staff. The Wiener’s Circle staff has a reputation for interacting with customers without a filter. The insults come fast and furious if customers are aloof. Though some indulge in confrontation and bait staff with their own putdowns, it’s not uncommon to see customers tentatively walk up to the counter and order as they worry about the wrath of legendary staff members like longtime general manager Evelyn Morris and Roberta “Poochie” Jackson. The insults have been flying since 1983, and it remains to be seen where Wiener’s Circle 2.0 fits in the modern world. On Sunday, Morris was giving out “thank yous” to customers after being away from the stand since January. However, she did let out a “jerkface” as one customer walked away. Nature is healing.
Morris says the hot dog stand is in flux with hours; they’re not yet ready for prime time. And with restaurants struggling to fill open jobs, they’ll play it by ear to see if they have adequate staff to stay open during their customary late-night hours. The city approved its liquor license on Friday, so the opening was rushed. Crews also have to complete a few things around the building. The pandemic, with supply chain and labor concerns, have snarled the project as management hoped for a June opening.
Sunday afternoon was slow, and some of that could be blamed with fans glued to TVs watching the Chicago Bears game, a contest they dropped to San Francisco. Morris says she would be happy if the struggling football team moved from playing games in Chicago to Arlington Heights as rumored. She suggested that Chicago import the Chicago Dogs, the minor league baseball team that plays in suburban Rosemont (where there’s a Wiener’s Circle in the stadium), to move into Soldier Field to replace the Bears.
“Fucking losers,” she says.
Wiener’s Circle management plans on announcing a grand opening date after they work out a few service humps and the aforementioned exterior work is completed.
Wiener’s Circle, 2622 N. Clark Street, open 10:30 a.m. to 4 a.m. daily; food service ends at 4 a.m.; alcohol service ends 1 a.m. Sunday through Thursday; and 1:30 a.m. on Friday and Saturday.