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Locking Horns: Bar Bar Black Sheep versus The Black Sheep

When I heard that a new spot called Bar Bar Black Sheep was opening last Saturday in Wicker Park, I knew there had to be some behind-the-scenes drama brewing. I’d been following the progress of another concept from one of our 50 Most Beautiful Chicagoans, Michael Simon, the former sommelier and general manager at Graham Elliot…

At the bar at Bar Bar Black Sheep
Don’t even think about scratching your initials in Bar Bar Black Sheep’s maple bar.
 

When I heard that a new spot called Bar Bar Black Sheep was opening last Saturday in Wicker Park, I knew there had to be some behind-the-scenes drama brewing. I’d been following the progress of another concept from one of our 50 Most Beautiful Chicagoans, Michael Simon, the former sommelier and general manager at Graham Elliot. Simon and his business partner, the chef James Toland (Lockwood), are set to unveil their West Town restaurant The Black Sheep in June, and, judging from the Facebook photos of the matching sheep tattoos the guys just had inked on their forearms, they’re committed to the name.

My friends Robert and James joined me at Bar Bar Black Sheep around 6 p.m. last night for a few afterwork drinks and bites. With its small but thoughtful beer list (I tried North Coast’s Le Merle, $8) and kids’ options on the food menu, BBBS makes for a bright, comfortable neighborhood place that seems more geared toward low-key conversation than some of the hipster joints down the street. A series of large charcoal drawings by the Chicago artist Mary Livoni serves as the only décor for now, but it’s enough in a smallish room that would be packed to the gills with 60 drinkers.

The sign outside Bar Bar Black Sheep
Just an observation: Note the relative font size of the “Bar Bar” part.

“We were wall-to-wall on Saturday,” said the bartender and manager, James Cosentino, of the bar’s opening night. He poured me a crisp glass of Pinot Grigio (Palmina from Santa Barbara, $7) and went on to say that an unpretentious vibe is priority number 1 for BBBS’s owner, David Stearns, a developer who’s been acquiring and renting buildings in Wicker Park for 27 years.

We tried barbecue-flavored wings ($9) and a turkey burger with grilled vegetables ($8), and we ran our hands over BBBS’s true centerpiece, the beautiful burled-maple bar—which, incidentally, is too pretty to keep company with the flimsy-by-comparison shelves and dated-looking mirror behind it. “It was made by a craftsman in Indiana,” Cosentino said when he caught us admiring the wood. “I’m in charge of protecting it, and I might hang a vintage machete on the wall to use on the first person who tries to carve their name.”

The interior of Bar Bar Black Sheep
Inside the bar

Later, when Stearns showed up, I asked if he had received any pushback from The Black Sheep guys over the name. “Yeah, I sat down with them,” he said. “It was an entertaining meeting. I guess they do see themselves as black sheep.” So who got the last word? “I first came up with the Black Sheep name in October of 2009, but we made a suitable change [adding the prefix ‘Bar, Bar’] to appease them,” Stearns said. “I wish them the best.”

This morning, I e-mailed Simon for his take.

“Yes, David Stearns contacted us after he discovered he couldn’t register his corporation as ‘Black Sheep’ because we’d already registered as ‘The Black Sheep.’ It appears they’re set with a very casual gastropub vibe, and The Black Sheep is a contemporary fine-dining restaurant serving progressive American cuisine. I can throw out all the buzzwords I’d like, but let me be explicit that the two establishments are completely different animals—pun very much intended.”

Sounds like the matter is settled, so long as no one tries to take his sheep show on the road. A full herd of owners—from The Black Sheep in Philadelphia, to the Black Sheep Restaurant & Lounge in Cincinnati, to The Black Sheep in New York, to Black Sheep Lodge in Austin, to Black Sheep Restaurant at The Kendall Hotel in Cambridge, plus others from Barcelona to Brooklyn—would all surely baa-baa-bleat their displeasure.

 

Photography: James Atkins

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