I SAW THE LIGHT Basking in the glow of Leader Bar
Truth is, when The Creative Director first alerted me to a newly opened bar somewhere in the vicinity of North Center and Irving Park, he did so with a smirk. “You should see this place,” he said. “They have their name cast in concrete over the door, and there’s this huge LED sign out front. It’s so bright you can’t even look at it. What is this, Times Square? Who do these people think they are?”
Last night we decided to find out.
I was reaching for the door handle at Leader Bar (3000 W. Irving Park Rd.; 773-478-2337), when TCD exclaimed, “Look, there it is!” Startled, I glanced out into the intersection, where a sudden burst of blinding light—was that a fire truck bearing down on us?—rattled me further. Oops, no. That was just the glow from Leader Bar’s LED sign flashing overhead. Heart pounding and eyes rolling, I opened the door and scurried inside.
Inside: sleek and much, much dimmer
This is where the evening entered Meet the Fockers territory. Remember that scene at the beginning of the movie, when Ben Stiller and his fiancée are on their way to the airport, and everything goes strangely perfectly? Like, so smoothly you think it’s a dream sequence?
In a half-blind daze, we allowed ourselves to be led by a host to the west side of the room. We considered bar stools, but an outburst of cheers and high-fives brought on by the Bulls game playing on a nearby flat-screen sent us scurrying for a quieter six-top. We took two chairs on the same side of the table, romance-style, and a smiling waitress dropped off menus and waited—patiently—while we selected our first beers: a Stiegl for me and a Dogfish Head for TCD, both $6.
We surveyed the space, taking in the flickering fireplace, the gleaming wood surfaces, the amiable 30-to-40-something crowd, and the action in the open kitchen. Our beers came quickly, and we ordered food (the Leader Burger “smothered in Merkts cheddar,” $8.95, and a buffalo chicken sandwich, $7.95). We chatted about upbeat, noncontroversial topics while John Mayer crooned over the speakers at a totally acceptable volume. When a runner delivered our plates a very reasonable amount of time later, he placed them before us and said, beaming, “Thanks for stopping by tonight!”
TCD and I exchanged guilty glances. “I’ve gotta tell ya, I’m pretty damn impressed,” I said.
“These tots are the best thing since Skylark. So crunchy,” he replied, munching thoughtfully.
On the beer list: Stiegl, $6
Sure, maybe it felt a little fakey, a little suburban-sleek, a little too shiny. And there were definitely more TVs than the Chaser would ever willingly condone. But the place is less than three weeks old. Let’s see how it settles in. This morning, in convivial spirits, I called Leader Bar’s owner, Mike Matuschka (also of Überstein, Max Bar, and Chicago’s original Crobar), to set a few things straight.
“It was a gut rehab that took 14 months,” he told me, adding that the bar is named after the building’s former occupant, the family-owned Leader Liquors, and that he’ll add a loungey patio setup and sidewalk tables come spring. “We thought it would be better to keep the building intact and not change the face of the neighborhood.” So then why, I had to ask, why would he ever think of installing such a tack-o-la sign over his polished front door?
“It was meant to advertise the bar, but now I’m thinking we’ll tone it down, make it not so obnoxious, a little more neighborly,” he said. Like maybe taking it down altogether?
“It was an expensive sign, so I’m not throwing it out,” Matuschka replied. “Maybe we’ll do a ‘happy birthday’ or advertise complimentary valet on weekends. People say they hate it, but they’re not looking at it when they’re inside the bar. Besides, what did you say your reason was for coming by last night?”
“Oh,” I said. “The sign.”
“See? It’s working.”