Legendary Chicago music venue the Empty Bottle reopened on March 3 in Ukrainian Village just under a year after the COVID-19 pandemic forced officials to close bars and restaurants. While live concerts haven’t yet resumed, patrons can drink and hang out in parties of six or less all while supervised by a furry harbinger of hope: Peg, a cantankerous middle-aged tabby with a perfectly boop-able nose. Staff have adopted the cat from Oak Park’s Animal Care League as she’s the latest in a series of feline stewards to call the venue home — and the first since 2009 — according to owner Bruce Finkelman.
Finkelman, founder of bar, restaurant, and venue collective 16” on Center (Revival Food Hall, the Promontory, Thalia Hall), hasn’t slowed during the pandemic. In July, he closed Bite Cafe, the diner that neighbored the Bottle as indoor dining wasn’t sustainable during the pandemic. He replaces Bite with Pizza Friendly Pizza a Sicilian-style pizzeria from chef Noah Sandoval of Michelin-starred Oriole.
During the pandemic, Finkelman’s partnered with Jonathan Zaragoza (Birria Zaragoza) on El Oso, a Mexican restaurant at the Promontory in Hyde Park, and has a hand in the $30 million development slated to bring restaurants and bars to the former Morton Salt warehouse north of Elston and Division.
An avowed animal lover, Finkelman and his team visit the Animal Care League regularly to play with the residents and check in with shelter staff. When he heard about an older cat with a “crabby disposition” and few chances at adoption, he leapt at the opportunity.
“To be able to offer a cat a place to live and a place to be around humans who love them and care for them, doesn’t seem like a bad thing,” he says. “I’m always fan of animals — they’re sometimes much better than human customers. But, unfortunately, they don’t buy beer.”
Sandoval and Finkelman bonded over music, and as successful as the pizza making business is, it was depressing for customers to walk into the alleyway to pick up a pizza and peak through the door and peer inside the Bottle where a darkened stage collected dust.
“It’s really kind of tearful to be able to open up those doors and see someone in the space after so long,” Finkelman says. “So many people were being affected by [the pandemic shutdown], from tour managers to bands to venue workers... it’s nice to see some semblance of progress, being able to turn those lights back on with hope for the future.”
Finkelman has taken in abandoned cats at the bar since the 1990s and even added a structure to the back of the building to shelter feral and outdoor cats in the neighborhood. In the past, he’s named many of them after characters from Harper Lee’s iconic novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. Cats including Scout, Atticus, and Boo have all lived inside the divey music venue with exposed brick walls and pressed-tin ceiling. Peg, however, knows her name and has resisted attempts to change it to “Dill.”
Empty Bottle isn’t the only spot in town with resident cats. Beer makers including Pipeworks Brewing Company and Empirical Brewery have relied on feral cat colonies to fend off hungry mice and rats attracted to their stock of high-quality grain.
Though he’s eager to bring musicians back to the Bottle’s narrow stage, Finkelman doesn’t feel its safe enough to resume shows at the venue. Some live shows have been held in the Chicago area during the pandemic, but he’s looking for explicit direction from government officials and health experts. On Wednesday, Mayor Lori Lightfoot in a virtual meeting warned some operators about a possible COVID-19 resurgence that could lead to a third shutdown of city businesses.
While Finkelman and his staff would love to quickly resume operations, it’s more important to preserve the safety of employees and customers.
“Chicago has such a strong music community, and to be able to band together and get people back to work safely is really important,” he says. “We’re all really hopeful.”
The Reader first reported the reopening and Peg’s arrival.
The Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western Avenue, Open 4:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday.
- The Empty Bottle Has an Important Cat Update [Chicago Reader]
- Stray Cats Guard Chicago Brewery, Protect Precious Beer Grain From Rats [DNA Info]
- Bite Cafe Closes After 28 Years to Make Way for Pizzeria [ECHI]
- The Promontory Welcomes a Well-Known Mexican Chef to Hyde Park [ECHI]
- Thalia and Revival Food Halls’ Owners Working on $30 Million Goose Island Project [ECHI]