If you didn’t know there was a bar connected to the Bridgeport liquor store Maria’s, you might hear the strains of music wafting from the walk-in freezer and think someone was throwing a party inside. We did know about the bar—and yet, after entering the shop and receiving encouraging smiles from a trio of older women clustered around the counter, we still approached the giant cooler door tentatively, half expecting to pull it open and meet a whoosh of icy air.
Instead, we entered a cozy space overseen by a lone bartender, whose black glasses twinkled in the amber light of a beer-bottle chandelier. Not long ago, the bar half of Maria’s was known as Kaplan’s, a crusty neighborhood watering hole (and, in the century preceding, a butcher shop, a speakeasy, and a grocery store that sold wine and beer by the bucket). Maria Marszewski bought it in the 1980s but left it largely untouched until recently, when her two sons convinced her to hipsterize the place.
On the Wednesday of our visit, my date and I pulled up next to the bar’s only other patron, a muscled young guy with a shaved head whom I took for a firefighter. When Tom, sipping a Three Floyds Pride & Joy, introduced himself as the pastor of the nearby First Trinity Lutheran Church, I couldn’t wrap my head around it. “A pastor? Really? Say something from the Bible,” I blurted.
“Fine,” he replied, raising his eyebrows. “What do you want to hear?” Stumped, I decided to take his word for it but was thoroughly convinced when he started talking about the bar. “I like Maria,” he said. “She’s a positive influence in the community. She talks to kids.” Since the renovation, Tom has noticed a younger clientele at the cash-only spot, once the stomping ground of a set of more seasoned drinkers. “It’s cool to have this place in the neighborhood,” he said. “I don’t stay out late. I don’t seek out bars. But I support positive businesses.”
Speaking of business, things were picking up. With every barstool occupied, the newcomers—a mix of artsy hipsters, beefy guys in button-down shirts, smarty-pants IIT students, and a fashion-designer friend of mine from the North Side who just happened to drop by—gravitated toward the benches in back made from reclaimed hardwood flooring. Meanwhile, my date and I ventured off the nearly 150-strong beer list and ordered a round of classic cocktails—a Dark & Stormy Night in Bridgeport ($6) and a Hardscrabble Sazerac ($9)—from the bartender, Ed, about whom we learned three things: (1) He’s one of Maria’s sons; (2) he publishes several magazines, including the local indie Lumpen, and runs the neighborhood gallery Co-Prosperity Sphere; and (3) he thinks Bridgeport is “magical—the community of the future.
“Bars are one of the last places where people can truly get together, socialize, and meet new people,” he said, citing the “Community Bar” part of Maria’s name: “It’s an intentional suggestion.” Amen to that.
GO: MARIA’S PACKAGED GOODS & COMMUNITY BAR 960 W. 31st St.; communitybar.wordpress.com
Photograph: Chris Guillen