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Chicago’s New Honkey Tonk Will Celebrate Black Cowboys With Barbecue and Bourbon Cocktails

The Delta owner Eldridge Williams is bringing Red River Dicks and the Pink Polo Social Club & Bar to River North

Coming Attractions. Eater/Getty

Eldridge Williams, the Chicago restaurateur behind Wicker Park’s lively Mississippi-style restaurant the Delta, is setting himself up for a bustling 2024 with two new dining and drinking spots coming this spring and summer to River North: The Pink Polo Social Club and Bar, a coffee shop and co-working space by day and ambitious cocktail bar by night; and Red River Dicks, a country-western saloon and barbecue spot touted as the only Black-owned venue of its kind in the Midwest.

These major moves from Williams and G.O.O.D. Pineapple Hospitality partner Robert Johnson will begin in late spring or early summer with the debut of the Pink Polo inside the Chicago Collection hotel at 312 W. Chestnut Street. Then they’ll unveil Red River Dicks in late summer at 1935 N. Sedgwick Street, the former home of long-vacant sports bar Sedgwick’s Bar & Grill.

Eldridge Williams poses and smiles.
Owner Eldridge Williams.
G.O.O.D. Pineapple Hospitality

Despite the sizable chasm between the venues’ styles and cuisines, both represent an ethos Williams holds dear. “I have this theory that for me to be able to get behind an idea or project, it has to have a story,” he says. “It has to have substance, something that’s more tangible than just food and beverage.”

In the case of Red River Dicks, that story is a powerful one, inspired in large part by the life and legacy of 18th-century African American cowboy Nat (pronounced “Nate”) Love. Born into enslavement in 1854 in Tennessee, Love — also known by his nickname, Red River Dick — was among the first and most famous Black cowboys of the Old West. Historians estimate that from the 1860s to 1880s, around 25 percent of cowboys were African American, though media portrayals have largely obscured their roles.

A Memphis, Tennessee, native and a rare Black restaurant owner in Wicker Park, Williams has engaged head-on with the disparities BIPOC (Black, indigenous, and people of color) hospitality operators face on Chicago’s North Side. He’d long harbored a desire to open a country bar, citing his love of a scene in 2008 comedy Soul Man where Samuel L. Jackson and the late Bernie Mac portray soul singers who find themselves onstage in a White-dominated honkey tonk saloon. “They were singing soul music, but it was like they bridged cultures and blended with this country aesthetic,” he says. “Everyone started line dancing, it was beautiful. I want to bottle that energy.”

The pieces began to come together when Williams learned about Black cowboys from Netflix documentary series High on the Hog and, after deeper research, encountered Love’s story. The barbecue menu will be based on the famed cowboy’s travels with representation from Tennessee, Kansas City, and Texas. Though the lineup is still in development, the team teases options like Crusted Cowboy beef ribs and a Tennessee smokehouse duck sandwich. Williams also promises a selection of “world barbecue” for those looking to expand their palate beyond the classics. Given his Memphis roots, he feels confident that barbecue fans will be satisfied. “There won’t be any half-stepping here, we’re going to do it right,” he says.

As in any Western watering hole, the bar at Red River Dicks will be a focal point, reaching almost the entire length of the 110-seat space. There, the team will offer an ample selection of whiskies and bourbons but hopes that patrons won’t overlook a lineup of “exciting, ambitious” cocktails, including group-sized concoctions that reflect the bar’s upbeat energy. Williams promises intricate custom woodwork, reclaimed tabletops, and a rustic Western aesthetic buoyed by a 15-foot cast iron hood (a relic from the previous tenant) that will hang overhead as a chandelier, as well as a soundtrack of both classic and modern country tunes.

“I want [customers] to feel as if they have been placed in a time capsule and they’re sitting in a bar from the 18th Century,” he says. “I want it to feel like a legitimate saloon that is somewhere in this old country-western town that you just stumbled across.”

Chicagoans can expect a very different scene at the Pink Polo, a chic replacement for shuttered snack spot Drop Shop Coffee. Williams and Johnson envision the space as a hub for remote workers and organizations with the atmosphere of a private club sans a hefty membership fee. At the Delta, Williams has worked with groups that don’t have a permanent space to gather and he plans to replicate that approach in River North with meeting spaces, coffee, and espresso drinks. The space bears a mix of industrial design and softer elements like Persian rugs and leather seating, as well as a dining room space that seats up to 60.

Once the workday is over, the Pink Polo will transition into a cocktail den equipped with a marble tile bar that seats around a dozen. But Williams has bigger plans than humdrum after-work drinks — he aims to unveil an “extremely ambitious cocktail program” that channels the over-the-top energy of 2000s cocktail culture. Though he’s keeping his cards close to his chest for now, “We’re not going to hold back,” he says. “I want [the Pink Polo] to be globally recognized for its cocktail program.”

While drinks are the star, the team will also offer a selection of small plates such as butter-poached ceviche and a Peruvian spin on nachos, tapping into the cuisines of South America, where the sport of polo is popular, says Williams. It provides a lively counterpoint to the intentionally preppy, country club implications of the venue’s name, which the founders drew from a lyric in Kanye West’s 2007 track “Barry Bonds.”

“I took my favorite social club and I took my favorite cocktail bar and imagined they had a baby, but I raised it,” says Williams. “That’s what the Pink Polo is going to be.”

The Pink Polo, 312 W. Chestnut Street, Scheduled to open in late spring or early summer. Red River Dicks, 1935 N. Sedgwick Street, Scheduled to open in late summer.