As thick piles of snow melt away on the sidewalk, tavern keepers from South Shore to Rogers Park have been reinvigorated after Chicago’s powers that be loosened COVID-19 rules, allowing them to stay open later and to serve up to 50 customers per room or a 50 percent maximum capacity. Bars can now sell liquor until 1 a.m., a drastic change from last fall’s 11 p.m. curfew.
It’s only the first weekend of March, yet the month has already welcomed back many of the city’s top bars. Billy Sunday reopened on Wednesday, March 3, in Logan Square, and the occasion marked almost a full year since its bartenders fashioned their last on-premise tipple.
“I was still talking to one of our guys here as we’re getting set up, like, ‘Man, I really miss the energy of a bar at capacity, people just enjoying conversation and everything our crew does so well,’” says Matthias Merges, chef and proprietor of Folkart Restaurant Management, which runs Billy Sunday. “I can’t wait to get back to it, even at 50 percent. I’m just really excited to provide that hospitality and craft.”
“We were contemplating opening last month, but talking to the staff, they weren’t really ready to do that,” Merges continues. “But with the number of cases falling at such a rapid clip and the vaccine getting out, they feel more comfortable now. People have come to embrace mask wearing; they’re polite about it and it’s become a second nature. That really helped us make the decision.”
Bar workers in Chicago have to wait until March 29 for vaccinations to be widely available to them. Based on numbers alone, it does appear that the city has turned a corner in dealing with the virus. The Chicago Department of Health’s latest daily update, released March 1, puts confirmed cases at 291, fatalities at six, and the overall positivity rate at 2.9 percent, the lowest it’s dropped since March 2020. It’s welcome news, for sure, but if the last year has taught the industry anything, it’s that COVID-19 is fickle and the next uptick in infections could swoop in with little warning. As much as Chicago wants to get back to “normal,” is now the right time for the city to eat, drink, and be merry under the same roof?
Lost Lake will not follow Billy Sunday’s lead, at least not immediately. Shelby Allison, the co-owner of the Logan Square tropical bar, says they’re still only offering to-go service, as no amount of social distancing and barriers make her feel that it’s safe enough. “I can’t wait to open — I miss restaurants and bars so much, but I also know that it’s not safe yet to take your mask off in front of someone that’s not in your household,” she says.
Lost Lake and many other area bars, including the neighboring Billy Sunday, have shifted to peddling bottled cocktails, colorful punches laced with fresh fruits, custom syrups, and quality booze. They’ve also adopted a subscription model with help from the enterprising pandemic-born startup Table22, a digital consultancy that helps restaurants package offerings and services to sell online. Overall, reception has been positive.
That’s not to say it isn’t a hustle, and Allison readily admits the bar has yet to turn a profit during the pandemic. But she’s still not tempted to quickly reopen. “Staying closed, it’s a decision that’s definitely hard to make,” she says, “but at the same time, it’s easy, because there is just no cocktail on the face of this earth that’s worth making someone sick.”
Celebrated cocktail master Julia Momose of Kumiko shares Allison’s no-nonsense outlook on indoor service, a position that has garnered pushback from disapproving would-be patrons.
“Last week, when the weather suddenly warmed, we must have gotten 10-plus phone calls not even asking if we were seating inside, just, ‘Hi, I’d like to make a reservation for two in 20 minutes,’” she says. “It’s frustrating because if you actually care about our place, you’d know if we were open indoors or not because that’s not something we hide. We’ve learned that for as many people who love us, there are even more who couldn’t care less if we survive this or not, saying things like ‘You could be open and you’re choosing not to, so if you’re in a bad place it’s all your fault.’ That’s not fair.”
Momose’s Japanese-inflected West Loop oasis has also embraced takeout and delivery while simultaneously introducing several Table22-backed subscription programs and rolling out a series of themed virtual cocktail classes — whatever it takes to stay afloat until everyone onboard feels good about inviting folks back inside.
“My stance is that I’m waiting until the staff have the chance to get vaccinated,” she says. “For now, I really am doubling down on finding ways to continue to keep the business running without opening any doors.”
Momose’s efforts extend beyond packaged beverages to include gourmet bar snacks and specialty coffee drinks. Artisanal ice is available in hand-chipped spheres, crunchy nuggets, or crystal-clear cubes fresh from the Hoshizaki machine, and, as Momose notes, getting into the ice business has been a surprising hit.
“We have a couple of people, they’ll get their weekly ice pickup from Kumiko, but it’s a process, let me tell you,” she laughs. “We scoop it, then sort through and place selected cubes into freezers to dry so when you pick up a bag it’s not going to be clumps all stuck together, it’s going to be individual gorgeous cubes rustling within the package.”
Kumiko has also launched weekday lunch with Kewpie mayo-laden egg-salad sandwiches inspired by Momose’s nostalgia for Japanese convenience stores.
“It’s so incredible, not just for me but for chef Emery [Ebarle] and the entire team, to get to know people we’ve never even met before because they keep coming back,” she says. “They understand that we’re not open indoors yet and they want to support us, in a way, because of that, because they feel extra safe coming here.”
Over in Avondale, recently vaccinated Hopleaf owner Michael Roper witnessed this same brand of customer appreciation when he briefly reopened the storied gastropub’s open-air garden last summer.
“We were very, very cautious, maybe more cautious than we even needed to be,” he says. “We had this one incident where a cranky guy came in; he wanted to sit at the bar and we told him there was no bar seating and directed him to the patio. There was a table of people in their 50s and 60s on the other side of the patio and he started grumbling to them about the pandemic, saying, ‘Well, I live in whatever suburb and everything’s open there, so this is bullshit.’ One of the women at the table said, ‘You know what? The only reason we came here is because they are so careful.’ She just shut this guy down. She was very polite, just said that she really appreciated the fact that we were extra careful. He didn’t order anything and left. I didn’t say anything to him and I was so happy that I didn’t have to, because one of my customers defended us.”
These days, Roper is taking a similarly measured approach, easing into on-premise service’s unpredictable waters with a full-scale remodel and an eye on vaccine distribution. They’re installing new rear windows to improve ventilation, adding kitchen equipment, banishing all the bar stools to storage, and installing a new point-of-sale system with handheld devices for servers.
“It’s a spending spree, but like many entrepreneurs, I’m a born optimist,” he says.
Hopleaf has remained “mothballed” since November. Takeout and delivery were never options, as Roper explains that his bar thrives on customers experiencing the atmosphere, plus, “unfortunately for us, our signature item is steamed mussels, which really doesn’t go in a box.”
At Lost Lake, Allison is using the pandemic as a chance for a “hard reset” — a major overhaul that goes beyond buying equipment and remodeling. They’ve abolished tipping while substantially increasing wages and have started covering 50 percent of their workers’ health care costs as well as offering paid time off.
“This is an opportunity — not only because of the pandemic, but also all of the protests and all of the speaking out with George Floyd’s murder and the #MeToo movement — to really change things,” she says.
Allison was encouraged by Gabrielle Hamilton’s piece in the New York Times about Prune.
“We had been following a lot of industry rules that had been laid out before we came along, thinking that’s just the way things were done,” she says. “That you work really long shifts, you depend on tips, you don’t get health care, the customer was always right, and all these things. And I came to the realization that if Lost Lake could not operate by her own terms, then I was ready to let the business go.”
Whether it’s reconfiguring table layouts or completely restructuring internal operations, the past year has transformed Chicago’s bar scene on every level imaginable. But no matter when it happens or what it ends up looking like, there isn’t a barkeep — or bar patron — around who isn’t looking forward to the day we can safely raise a glass together again.
“I’m pretty optimistic things are going to be good,” Roper concludes with a hopeful lilt. “We’re really anxious to see our friends. Because, really, after all these years, our customers are our friends and we miss them.”