by Sarah Preston
All dressed up-or down-and no place to go? Until recently, that was the Friday-night quandary for scenesters in Wicker Park. Despite the myriad hipster haunts dotting the ‘hood, it was hard to find a spot that appealed to both low-key loungers (decked out in last year’s boot-cut jeans) and high fashionistas (done up in this season’s skinny-legs).
In good spirits: Bar patrons and DJ Whiteshadow gather at Wicker Park’s new Empire Liquors
But at the October opening of Empire Liquors (1566 N. Milwaukee Ave.), I knew I had discovered the hottest new drinking den for denim lovers of all stripes. And not just because DJ Whiteshadow was spinning Justin Timberlake’s “SexyBack” as I scoured the room for a few fresh faces. This bar marks another of Matt Eisler’s brainstorms (Elm Street Liquors, Victory Liquors), and he’s got the credibility and laid-back charm to make it work. “We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel,” the 30-year-old Eisler tells me, shyly. “We’re just giving the area what it needs.” He should know; he spent close to a year negotiating the space formerly occupied by Eddy Clearwater’s Reservation Blues (Clearwater is still Eisler’s landlord).
Get more dirt on the dating and social scenes with my new blog, Last Girl Standing, every Monday and Thursday. I go out eight nights a week so you don’t have to!
Eisler knows how to fill a void in the nightlife scene, with spots that cater to their respective neighborhoods. Empire perfectly echoes the mix of its home turf: trendy without trying too hard. The bar doesn’t take itself too seriously, although you wouldn’t know it from the painstaking attention to detail: gothic, arched entryways; colorful backlighting behind the bar; white antler fixtures dotting the wall; and contemporary chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. Eisler mixed in raw elements, too, like tree trunks that serve as stools, and a herringbone-slate floor.
But it’s the ambitious drink menu that really grabbed us. Bargoers can create their own sippers by picking a flavored syrup-such as vanilla, lychee, candied orange, and grape, plus sugar–free varieties-to spice up a vodka and soda. Eisler calls the resulting drinks “hard Italian sodas,” a twist he thought up during his many trips to Filter, the coffeehouse across the street.
Oscar-nominated actress Laura Linney, whose 1996 breakout role in Primal Fear included scenes shot at Chicago’s own John Barleycorn, visited town in October to host a Habitat for Humanity event at Tod’s. Decked out in head-to-toe Tod’s-natch-Linney took a few minutes to dish on fellow celebs. “Robin Williams is one of the kindest, funniest people; I’ve never laughed so hard in my life on set,” she told me of her Man of the Year costar. In the spirit of politics, I asked Linney how she felt about the possibility of Barack Obama running for president in 2008. “He’s a breath of fresh air for everybody,” she said. “But I’m also a big fan of Hillary Clinton’s.” Linney has two other films in postproduction: The Nanny Diaries and Breach, which costars another celeb at the tip of tabloid fodder lately, Ryan Philippe. “He’s adorable,” Linney gushed.
photography: Chris Guillen
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