I like talkative bartenders, don’t you? Well, at least the semitalkative ones who tell you a little something you wouldn’t have thought about otherwise, then slip down the bar to polish a glass or two, leaving you to mull over this tidbit before ordering your next round.
One bartender, Christopher (previously of Acre; Salute; and 694 Wine & Spirits, formerly known as Juicy; among others) at the West Town newcomer Leopold, is a master of this technique, and I credit him with helping lift me out of a mood the other night.
We—The Creative Director, our artist friend Sarah and I—had just attempted a follow-up visit to Maude’s Liquor Bar in the West Loop. I’d already abandoned said mission once before in the face of a two-hour wait. On this occasion, we approached the door (“This is how it always looks from the outside, like it’s shut down or something,” I explained to the group) only to pull the handle and find that, actually, Maude’s is never open on Sundays.
Long story short, I was steamed, even though it was my own fault for not checking the hours.
As we climbed back into the car, which we had carefully parked in a snowdrift, TCD tried to cheer me up. “How about we stop by that other new place, Leopold? You’ve been wanting to check it out, right?” I huffed, sighed, swiped my bangs out of my eyes, and said yes.
My first two observations about Leopold went down in the “physical hazards” column of my notes. When Sarah grabbed the handle of the heavy front door and pulled, it swung out surprisingly fast, smushing her gloved fingers into a concrete wall. “Ow! Owwww!” she yelped, as the hostess cringed and advised us to be careful.
“Does that happen a lot?” I asked, testing the door to see if it was spring-loaded.
“Once in a while,” she said. I could tell what she really meant was yes.
Next up: a trip to the ladies’ room across the slipperiest floor in the universe. The tiles were slicker than the ice-covered sidewalk outside, and I’m glad no one was there to watch me take an ungraceful glide.
Back at the bar, I resolved to calm the heck down and enjoy the cozy, if a tad spartan, surroundings, a riff on the gastropub thing we’ve been seeing so much of lately (Bangers & Lace, Maude’s). Is it a bar or is it a restaurant? This is the question I’m constantly asking myself at places like this. The answer, I think, is in the eye of the imbiber. I you want it to be a bar, treat it like a bar. If you’re in it for a meal, treat it like a restaurant.
We were on bar patrol, so we ordered some snacky sustenance—a pot of winter root vegetables ($4) and a side of fries with curry aioli ($5)—then focused on beer. Leopold’s shtick is Belgian, so TCD started with a Saison Dupont ($8), while I went with an Austrian Stiegl Paracelsus Zwickl ($10)—hefty prices for draft beers, but there are a few options in the $6 range. In more of a wine state of mind, Sarah ordered an $11 glass of Riesling.
The all-ages crowd of diners and drinkers gradually dispersed, leaving the three of us as Leopold’s last customers of the night. Here’s where Christopher—who had stopped by to pour us a sample or two from the bottled beer menu, which features mostly 750ml options in the $25 range—came in. When I commented on the music and asked what was playing, Christopher admitted it was the Shins Radio channel on Pandora. What! No vinyl?
That’s when he gave us a prime insider tip: “Ever been to The Exchange on a Monday?” he asked conspiratorially. “That’s industry night, when they have two guest chefs making cocktails. Big-time people. Ask for Luke. It’s a raucous crowd.” Christopher, a real bartender’s bartender, continued as Weezer’s “Undone—The Sweater Song” came on: “Another place I drink? Sable. Ask for DeJorn.”
We sang along for a few lines and signed our credit card slips. “Can you believe this song is 16 years old?” Christopher asked.
“Whoa,” we all said, contemplating where we were in 1995 as he swept away to close the register. “Whoa.”
Photograph: Courtesy of Huge Galdones