To the delight of its many fans, the moody red lights at landmark Humboldt Park tavern the California Clipper flickered back to life this week almost two years after the bar’s sudden closure.
The historic drinking den at 1002 N. California Avenue reopened Thursday, and while it’s under new ownership, not much else has changed about the Clipper, from the glossy wooden bar to its intimate vinyl booths. For Orbit Group, the new hospitality company that in November opened Italian restaurant Segnatore across the street, that decision came down to what the community wanted: to have its bar back.
“The pressure [from fans] is definitely felt,” says general manager Carly Brown. “It’s good pressure — there is a standard set for us and we fully intend to meet it. Everyone who is working here took the job for a reason and that’s to bring the Clipper back to life.”
There are a few key updates: a fancy, high-tech new sound system; a lounge space in the back room that previously housed C.C. Ferns coffee bar; and a Suntory Toki highball machine, a relative rarity in Chicago bars, save for explicitly Japanese venues like Gaijin in the West Loop.
The bartenders aim to maintain the Clipper’s original spirit, starting with an opening menu from beverage director Kristina Magro (Prairie School, Sportsman’s Club) centered around recognizable variations on classic cocktails such as the matador (tequila, lime, pineapple), a close relative of the margarita, and the negroni-adjacent cardinale (gin, bitters, vermouth). Cocktail selections will rotate, but the unfussy approach will remain, says Brown.
“There are hundreds of cocktail bars in the city, which is a wonderful thing,” she says. “There’s no reason to compete with any of that with a high-touch, 15-step whatever when we can serve a great cocktail while still providing accessibility and comfort for staff and guests.”
Clipper patrons can count on some standbys. A highball will always be on the menu (Brown promises “a few cute surprises” in that category in the coming months), alongside Chicago and Poland Handshakes, made with Old Style and Malört and Lomza and Zubrowska respectively. In March, bartenders plan to introduce Medalla Light, a popular Puerto Rican beer that isn’t currently distributed in Illinois. Its presence will serve as a knowing nod to Humboldt Park’s large Puerto Rican community. “We wanted to respectfully pay homage,” says Brown. “Not in a deceased, memorial way, but [to say] we wouldn’t be here were it not for this community.”
A treasured relic of Chicago’s bar scene, the Clipper’s history dates back to 1937 when it served as a speakeasy. A former operator renovated the space — which includes a small stage for live music — in 2002. Hogsalt Hospitality (Au Cheval, Bavette’s Bar & Boeuf) took over a dozen years later, with owner Brandon Sodikoff adding a massive cocktail menu and some minor aesthetic updates, as well as converting a backroom area into C.C. Ferns. Despite early concerns from some longtime regulars, Sodikoff’s Clipper continued to draw crowds, maintaining its nearly 90-year nightlife legacy in Humboldt Park and West Town.
But Hogsalt’s tenure at the bar came to an abrupt end in May 2020. At the time, Sodikoff told Eater that Hogsalt wasn’t able to reach an agreement with the property’s landlord that would allow the businesses to remain viable. The landlord, Gino Battaglia, disputed the restaurateur’s version of events, and that July filed two lawsuits demanding more than $93,000 in back rent and damages from Sodikoff. The parties settled the case in March 2021, opening the door for new ownership to take over the tavern.
Block Club Chicago first reported this opening.
The California Clipper, 1002 N. California Avenue, Open 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. daily.