UPchicago Bar Crawl: North Center & Lincoln Square
Certainly two of the most popular neighborhoods in Chicago at this time are North Center & Lincoln Square, occupying the area surrounding Lincoln Ave. as it winds up from Irving Park to Foster. Housing is still relatively affordable, there are as many families as there are twenty something’s, the residential side streets aren’t yet over developed and the main avenues are flourishing with quality retail without any of the monstrous mega marts or commercial cluster-fucks that often choke other parts of the city. This is a great part of town for a bar crawl as your options are endless. For this project we assembled five writers who would each choose a destination, collectively drink there and then individually share their impressions. This is our story.
Tiny Lounge – David Frankel McLean
4352 N. Leavitt Street
Bar crawls can get messy — quantity is inevitable — so the key is to focus on your timing. Food, water and a steady pace are your best friends in keeping you out of the red. So I didn’t hesitate to stop for a warm-up cocktail before our outing, a quintessential after-work sedative to help me ease into the bar-crawl state of mind. Tiny Lounge was perfectly understated for this task, a cocktail canteen that straps their mixologists in t-shirts instead of mutton chops and peaked lapels. I had to double check the address because the joint’s not only tiny but it lacks decent signage and is practically swallowed by Bowman’s Bar next door. The interior is Scandinavian simple and rather comfortable for my purposes, as pretentious as their menu was small. Though a small menu was a relief since I was slightly dreading the expected phone-book-sized beverage list. Upon ordering I informed my waiter I was more of a straight-up kinda guy, so he discouraged the sweet specialty drinks and steered me away from the wyatt earp to the simpler sauzerac. It tasted like a dry manhattan with a touch of absinthe but I like my liquorices so it worked for me.
One drink was all I had time for but the place had me intrigued enough to come back another day for their celery enhanced Stalker (chosen by Katherine Raz as The Reader’s “Best Cocktail that Might be Good for you”). The cocktail is unique but if you’re hoping not to taste your gin then you’ll be pleasantly disappointed. Their tap list looked notable but this place screams date night (for its intimacy not it’s panache) and I was on no date. Feeling loose and ready to rock, it was time to begin the crawl.
Fountainhead – Max Wolod
1970 W. Montrose Ave
The first stop on a bar crawl is important. It’s a tone-setter. Lincoln Square is one of my favorite Chicago hoods and so for our boozy tour de le Square I wanted to pick a suitably dope jumping-off point. I wanted to smash that christening bottle of champagne against the bow of a Big Pimpin’-ish yacht, not a dubious dinghy of a place. The Fountainhead is one of my favorite bars right now. It’s relatively young to the scene, but it seems to have settled comfortably into its location on the corner of Montrose and Damen. This particular part of the neighborhood suffers from a dearth of bars (although the Oakwood 83 is across the street… if you ever wondered where registered sex offenders hang out at 3 in the morning), so when Fountainhead opened a few months ago it was welcomed by all.
What’s in a name? I ask myself this as I wait for my fellow crawlers. My iPhone tells me that Fountainhead gets its name from an Ayn Rand novel which Wikipedia tells me is about an architect who chooses to toil in obscurity for embracing a modernist aesthetic rather than conforming to his society’s tradition worshipping system. Yeesh…that all sounds pretty severe. It’s still a nice sounding word though. Perhaps it bears mentioning that I’ve started drinking because, well, it’s almost 8pm. I’ve waited at least 6 minutes for my compadres and the whiskey and beer lists at Fountainhead are blast-your-ass good. Sick shit on tap. Lots of locals, one-offs, and obscurities. The Single Malt section is pretty ridiculous too. Independent bottlers, vintages of 30 years plus, and everything is dirt cheap. I work in the “industry” –- quotation marks added for extra douchiness –- and that leaves me vigilant when it comes to sniffing out gratuitous mark-ups. Fountainhead is practically giving liquor away. I choose a Yamazaki 18 year from Suntory in Japan. Ever seen Lost in Translation? “Suntory time. Good time.” Chicago’s own William Murray. Look it up. Holler at your boy Bill!
I love it. My scotch comes in a cool stemmed glass with a water back in a fragile-looking pitcher that resembles a miniaturized Neti pot. I feel like my pinkies should be sticking out when I pick it up. It tastes amazing. Honey and heather and pipe tobacco. I’m in the zone. My fellow travelers arrive. Hoorah! Chit-chat. Pleasantness. Their drinks come. Everyone tastes everyone’s drinks which is cool considering our co-worker status. We order some food. The menu at Fountainhead is good. Everything I’ve tasted has been pretty spot-on –- good fries, good beer-braised pork shoulder sandwich, decent mac n’ cheese –- and today the pork plate with various forced meats is rustic and tasty. We have another round and get to talking about the next bar. And we’re off!
Bad Apple – Gene Wagendorf III
4300 N. Lincoln Avenue
When I first agreed to this bar crawl idea I was thinking we’d do, say, forty-five minutes to an hour at each bar. That seemed reasonable. Of course, alcohol has a way of altering time perception — making the minute hand stop for three hours or quickly turning an evening into an episode of Quantum Leap. I can’t say when we started drinking at Fountainhead, or more importantly, when we stopped. All I know is that by the time we entered the Bad Apple it was dark, and inside the bar seemed even darker.
After filling us up with deliciousness at the previous bar, Max, who assumed the role of digestive sage for the evening, had been singing the praises of the burgers at the Apple. Some famous butcher-to-the-stars provided the meat. I don’t remember, I was drunk. With any luck, he’ll write a piece on it (editor’s note: NYC’s Pat LaFrieda is the butcher, and damn does he know his meat). Our server came over with a few menus and a beer list. I’m a sucker for anything Stone Brewery these days. It’s been a recent addition to Chicago and I must say, a pleasant one. I’d already familiarized myself with their Arrogant Bastard Ale, but this bar promised something a little special — Oaked Arrogant Bastard. I had no choice. It’s a strong ale, creamy, bitter, but relatively light and better for sipping than slamming. Having it “oaked” seemed to bring out a few of the more subtle flavors and make it all the more perfect for pairing with burgers.
Yeah, burgers. After pigging out at the previous bar we still ordered a couple burgers, one “plain”, and one of the “Slow Burns”, which had spicy chilies sautéed in Left Hand Brewery’s Milk Stout, onions, bacon and white cheddar. Some older funk and R&B cuts were streaming out of the jukebox during the meal, and while our server wasn’t exactly Speedy Gonzalez, the man was cool. I had no reason to complain.
After the burgerpocalypse my belly was saying, “Hey man, let’s go outside and have a smoke. Digest. Take it easy. This is only bar two.” I ordered myself a glass of Founder’s Red’s Rye and went for a cigarette. I came back in to a full beer, my compatriots chatting and smiling and half-way through theirs. I’ve been to Grand Rapids recently, where Founder’s Brewery is located, and even there I paid more than $4.50 for a glass. That’s right, the Bad Apple features a beer list that while small, is excellently curated (are beer selections curated? Can I have THAT job?) and on top of it all dirt cheap. I hurried to finish my second beer, meandered around the bar’s other room (populated by a shuffleboard table, a Foosball table and a pinball machine) and used the washroom. It was clean, another plus. All in all, I give this place a solid A. I worry about the speed of service on busier nights, but I was in no rush, and for the quality and price I’m happy to entertain myself while waiting on rounds. With slightly glazed eyes and big smiles the group got up, nodded at the bartender and made the trek towards the Grafton. Go back in time and wish us luck. If you don’t have a time machine, grab a beer and raise your glass. Cheers!
The Grafton – Tessa McLean
4530 N. Lincoln Avenue
Well, hello, bar #3. It’s good to have finally found you. And what a find it is, for a Tuesday evening, this is the most hoppin’ place we have been to yet. While Fountainhead had a good crowd that seemed to be enjoying a beer or two with dinner, Grafton had a pretty sizable drinking crowd at around 10:30pm. As this is an Irish pub, I went for something that seemed to compliment the atmosphere, and chose a Carlsberg for my drink of choice. They have quite a lot of imported beers, 10 draft beers featuring more local and craft brews, as well as your domestic stand-bys in the bottle. They also boast a great selection of Irish whiskey. The place itself definitely has that pub feel, and as we headed toward the back of the bar to find our spot, we noticed something that may draw the crowds in often.
You see, the Grafton is lucky enough to be located just down the street from the Old Town School of Folk Music, and thus has become a neighborhood hangout for the musicians who play and teach there. We stood on the edge of a folk music jam session/sing along that gave the bar a community feel most bars would give up their liquor license for. They host live music Sunday-Wednesday in front of their cozy fireplace; I just might have to come back in the winter. The whole pub feel was just warm and cozy in general, certainly a place I could hang out for hours with the right people.
We were quite full by this time, so we chose not to indulge in any Irish-American pub food, but from what I saw on other people’s plates, it looked pretty tasty. I’ve also heard great things about their burger. The moral of the story here is you can’t go wrong at this traditional Irish pub. On to the next.
Huettenbar – Phil Kranyak
4721 N. Lincoln
Between the arching sign over Lincoln Avenue and the Giddings Square Fountain is our next destination. Nestled in the center of what is perhaps the central block of Lincoln Square, the Huettenbar stands out from every establishment around. It looks as if someone took a ski lodge from Germany and plopped it near a Cold Stone, as if the bar wants nothing to do with its surrounding businesses and would be much more at home off a dirt road, surrounded by majestic conifers. The inside of the bar has the same feel as the outside except amplified, perhaps due to the fact that you can no longer turn your head and see a Chase Bank or a Subway. We have already been to several bars and I would like to get something light, something airy, barely beer, with a cute, mild name. Well, Lincoln Square is a decidedly German section of town and the Huettenbar is a decidedly German Pilsstube (it means ‘bar’ you irresponsible, delinquent, underage hooligans). If you are expecting to find Miller Light on tap, they have a faucet in the bathroom that you are welcome to fill your cup with. You’re going to look at the taps, pick a German word, and get a liquid resembling in color a piece of furniture made from heavily varnished walnut tree wood, which by the way would not seem out of place in the Huettenbar.
We were lucky enough to sit in the stampstich, as it was a Tuesday evening. When you get that main booth by the front door you feel like the king of the Huettenbar; close enough to the bar and front door to be where the action is, but safely tucked away in your own private nook. The decor is fantastic, but on this particular evening I can’t tell, because of the walnut tree-colored beer. Instead we focus on the flavors and the conversation, which are the mainstays of the establishment. I remember my nights past in the Huettenbar, which is like a fine bavarian chocolate — I don’t eat it every day because it is to be savored when I do.
This is not some new-wave restaurant and bar, taking focus away from the bartenders by serving up half-hearted chicken fingers. Grab a bag of pretzels with your stein of molasses and be happy. If you wanted food so badly you should have visited Gene’s Sausage Shop or the Brauhaus before you came. Huettenbar is an experience, not a place to get trashed with your besties or your brah’s from high school. I know you totally haven’t hung out since homecoming, but pick a different spot. Don’t ruin the Huettenbar for the rest of us. I felt the same way at the conclusion of our stay as I did writing the conclusion of this piece: drunk. I am only kidding, I would never drink and write, you irresponsible, delinquent, underage hooligans.
UPchicago Bar Crawl – North Center & Lincoln Square in a larger map