UPDATE: According to a June 23 report from Lisa Arnett at Metromix, the Shady Lady may change its name within the next two weeks: “The concept will remain the same and there will be no interruption in service, says co-owner Doug Simons.”
Dion Antic is the Madonna of Chicago nightlife, known for reinventing (and retattooing) himself alongside the bevy of bars he once opened, closed, and reopened, seemingly at will. At least that was his MO before he all but abandoned Chicago in 2004 amid personal turmoil to give the L.A. restaurant scene a shot. It didn’t work out (“There’s a lot of talk, but nothing gets done,” he says), and last year the mastermind behind now-shuttered spots such as Harry’s Velvet Room and Iggy’s reemerged with a new strategy—concept consulting rather than ownership—and a new non-nightlife venture, Bagel on Damen.
“I swore I’d never sell drinks after 40,” Antic, 46, says—but when a space opened up in River North, the temptation was irresistible. The result: The Shady Lady, a new big-top-meets-speakeasy of a lounge dreamed up mostly by Antic but officially run by a longtime friend, Craig Hiljus.
Both Antic and Hiljus were working the crowd when my date and I stopped by. Ushered in by a skinny host whose fedora-shaded eyes lent a fitting note of menace to the Prohibition vibe, we had just begun elbowing our way to the bar when we ran into friends and decided to wait for a table. Our group stood around watching a mix of youngish professionals and out-of-towners vie for the bartenders’ attention against a backdrop of Victorian chandeliers and sideshow posters—a far cry from the pub décor of the previous tenant, Garrett Ripley’s. “We turned the space around in 26 days,” Antic later told me. “That’s the great thing about Chicago: Here you can make a couple of calls, and things happen, just like that.”
We eventually snagged seats, but the later it got, the tighter the crowd pressed toward the bar, and I began to notice people shooting daggers at our table strewn with glasses and food. A final round arrived—we had all decided to try the signature Shady Lady (orange essence, Ransom gin, egg white, half and half, and lemon and lime juices; $13)—just as the decibel level went from blaring to blasting. I was considering fashioning earplugs out of my napkin when the cacophony ceased and a lone man carrying a saxophone walked onto a small stage at the front of the room (burlesque dancers and assorted oddities perform briefly each night, on a schedule known only to Antic and Hiljus). The man brought the instrument to his lips and began to play a slow, deliberate tune that sounded more like a spell than a song. We sat, mesmerized, until he finished, then paid our tab and slipped out into the shadows.
GO: THE SHADY LADY
712 N. Clark St.; 312-624-9008
Photograph: Chris GuillenDining & Drinking