As this year’s holiday season approaches, Chicagoans have visions of a pre-pandemic world, with family and friends gathering in large groups around dinner tables and catching up. One sector that’s been hit hard since March 2020 is bars. Even before COVID worries, it felt fewer folks were gathering once sacred drinking days like Black Wednesday, once a date circled by tavern workers who expected to be crushed by customers.
One bar that’s seen ups and downs is Pops For Champagne which celebrated its 40th anniversary. A popular spot in Downtown Chicago for wine lovers, bachelorette parties, and group gatherings, the second incarnation of Pops has made the corner of State and Ohio a drinking destination. There’s also a basement bar, Watershed, which concentrated on craft beer and jazz music. To celebrate Pops’ 40th birthday, and the gradual return to pre-pandemic life, Watershed received a facelift and reopened in August with a focus on cocktails. There’s even a menu based on NBC’s hit comedy Community (the cast recently announced they’re reuniting for a movie after the show left the air in 2015).
Drinks are based off specific episodes, for example Episode 9: Remedial Chaos Theory is served with Pepperoni Combos, Jeppson’s Malört, thyme, tomato, vinegar, bitter, and port wine. The drink is a reference on how the show’s characters rolled dice to figure out who was going to get pizza. Hilarity ensues. But for those not familiar with Troy and Abed’s antics, the bar now deploys a cocktail cart to deliver rare spirits like brandy, bourbon, and bitters tableside with speakeasy vibes.
Pops originally opened in Lakeview in 1982 at the corner of Sheffield and Oakdale — Kirkwood, a sports bar that capitalizes on fans of the Cubs and Big 10 college teams, has since moved in, showing how much the neighborhood has changed over four decades in the shadow of nearby Wrigley Field. Founder Tom Verhey would close the bar and remodel in 1991, relaunching the space with a sibling bar next door. While Champagne and wine were fine for Pops’ older clientele, Star Bar was a little louder and with a casual atmosphere that appealed to younger drinkers.
Lakeview would close in 2006, along with a second location in the North Shore, to set the stage for River North’s debut. The Vaheys would sell the bar in 2018 to Craig Garofalo and Andy Poch, industry veterans who owed Capriotti’s franchises. Garofalo also attended culinary school at Kendall College.
They’ve slowly left their marks on the Chicago institution, once billed as “America’s longest-runing Champagne bar” Gone are the dense “leatherbound menus with 15 pages of wine no can prommounce,” as Garofalo describes.
The pandemic brought Zoom wine tastings and PPP loan applications to the forefront. One of the first things to come back after the suspensions of indoor service were bachelor and bachelorette parties. Downtown is showing signs of life with larger happy hour crowds. It was hard to maintain momentum with COVID precautions repeatedly stopping and starting business.
September’s 40th birthday party saw regulars come to the pay homage. And with new programming, like the Community drink menu downstairs, Garafalo and Poch are hopeful that Pops can emerge from the pandemic strong.
“As the restrictions came off in 2021, it was almost like the Super Bowl again,” Poch says. “People were out and living life and everything was fantastic.”