Two dives with more than two centuries of Chicago tavern history between them are making big moves in 2024. SmallBar in Logan Square has sold to new owners and is on track to close the deal on Friday night, February 2. Meanwhile, Skylark in Pilsen has sold to a group of employees who have already taken over operations.
At SmallBar, brothers Ty and Troy Fujimura, and co-owner Jesse Roberts agreed to sell the bar to Footman Hospitality, owners of Quality Time, Sparrow, and Bangers & Lace. Footman’s owners have pledged to keep “the soul of SmallBar intact and reestablish it for its next decade and beyond.”
Ty Fujimura says it’s time to downsize as his family grows older. He currently lives above the bar but plans to move soon. “We have a great opportunity to pass the torch to a really great group of guys who want to keep it SmallBar, to continue the legacy — that’s super important to me,” Fujimura says.
One of the bar’s regulars, Jason Freiman, is a Footman Hospitality founder. “I’ve known Ty for 15 years, I was also a longtime patron,” Freiman writes in an email. “More importantly, historic Chicago taverns are worth saving, I didn’t want to see the bar/property undergo redevelopment into condominiums.”
SmallBar, 2956 N. Albany, opened in 2002, but the space has been a tavern since 1906, says Ty Fujimura. (One of its incarnations was called Fanelli’s.) True to its name, it’s a tiny bar — just 500 square feet — that serves beers from craft breweries from around the country. Tucked away from major intersections, it’s a neighborhood dive with a 50-seat patio — double the size of the interior. Small Bar’s indoor footprint makes it one of the tiniest watering holes in Chicago. It’s got more girth compared to Matchbox, the tiny and narrow West Town tavern.
Ty Fujimura called SmallBar his “happy place” and has witnessed hundreds of first dates (and just as many break ups) at the bar, in addition to the various rapscallions who frequent it. Fujimura compares SmallBar to a first love. “You learn from them and you make some mistakes, and hopefully the next one you don’t make the same mistakes — that’s what SmallBar is to me,” he says.
Fujimura also owns upscale sushi restaurant Arami and is a partner in Wicker Park bar Lilac Tiger and its fine dining sibling, the Coach House (chef Zubair Mohajir was nominated for a national James Beard Award last week).
SmallBar will close for six to eight weeks, according to Freiman. Footman Hospitality has hired Siren Betty Design to spruce up the space. Footman has a history of taking over bars, and in 2014 it purchased Bucktown Pub, a 92-year-old bar.
According to a news release, Footman partner Mike Van Meter is charged with creating a drink menu with “unpretentious riffs on classics.” The beer list will be local and “no-nonsense.” And they’ll still pour fun beer-and-shot combos. Siren Betty is bringing in new light fixtures with vintage elements like 1910s Tiffany-style glass, 1920s Art Deco geometry, and textured walls with patterned wallpaper.
SmallBar’s proximity to Quality Time doesn’t bother Freiman: “No worries at all — the more the merrier,” he tells Eater.
If any new SmallBars open, the Fujimuras won’t be involved as the name has been sold to Footman. At one point there was SmallBar located in Wicker Park and near DePaul University’s Lincoln Park campus, though the latter two were operated by Fujimura’s former business partner who helped open the original in Logan Square.
Across town in Pilsen, the story is similar at Skylark, but it’s a group of employees who have rallied to purchase the bar at 2149 S. Halsted Street. The former owner, Bob McHale, placed the bar for sale with the hopes that a buyer would maintain the space rather than erect a new development on the site. Skylark opened in 2003.
Brian Page, a veteran Chicago bartender who’s worked at places including California Clipper in Humboldt Park, is one of the owners. He told Block Club Chicago that he “hates to see neighborhood bars close down and no longer be fostering community” and that he didn’t want to see the bar fall into the hands of inexperienced owners who would squander what workers have built.
Losing bars to new development is a fear for many lovers of tavern culture. Ty Fujimura says he’s been fortunate to watch Logan Square, and specifically his corner of the neighborhood, change through the years. He’s happy he found a worthy successor at SmallBar and confident he’s handing the keys to folks he trusts.