The crowds are going frantic for a ruin that's romantic: River North's club-of-the-moment, Cristal, is a glossy cathedral.
I'm in line in the alley behind Cristal, a River North club-of-the-moment, wedged between two shiny women both named Cheryl and a salon-tanned guy in last year's Hermes power tie. There are 40 or 50 of us, and even though we're all wearing designer aromas and our hair, collectively speaking, is moussed from here to Downers Grove, we're not sure we're going to get in. The two blond doormen are making a big show of letting in people who aren't in line but who appear to be their friends, their boss's friends, or VIPs of some sort. As the anointed make their entrances, they give those of us stuck behind the thick velvet rope a look usually reserved for rejected pandhandlers: a slight, tight grin.
Eventually, though, we're admitted—the Cheryls spring from the rope like Preakness racers—to enjoy Cristal's marbelized and frescoed frou-frou faux atmosphere (with leopard-print seat covers and gold putti hanging from the ceiling, it has all the elegance of a low-rent Fort Lauderdale hotel lobby), its expensive-but-strong cocktails served in hard-to-drink-from square glasses, and charming company. As one woman says to a guy after he asks if he should introduce himself, "I don't know; I just did my nails."
Blacked out: At Lower Links, a strange basement full of somebody's old chairs, the lights are ultra-low and the stars are the limit.
A few nights later I'm at Lower Links, doing a sort of cha-cha thing with a whirling dervish in red high-tops, when it dawns on me that the last time I did the cha-cha was in 1973 at a bar mitzvah with a girl named Mona. A couple of those undersize bottles of Rolling Rock beer are rolling around my belly, not to mention a cafe au lait or two, and I'm starting to lose track of my "one, two, cha-cha-cha." The crowd is very artsy-fartsy, and this all-black basement room with red light bulbs and fringed lampshades is where they come to relax after long days of gessoing canvases and writing haiku. I meander away from my Salome and fall into a deep velvet couch, only to be instantly asked by the guy sitting next to me if I want to see his collection of matchbooks, which he conveniently has with him in a plastic zip-lock bag. "It's a history of Howard Johnson's," he says. "I haven't looked at them since I moved to Chicago."
At Maxtavern the music is eclectic and the ladies' room's a local legend.
Face it, Chicago has clubs and bars catering to every taste, whim, and hairdo. Preppies pose at the mock-venerable Hunt Club. Heavy-metal types bang heads Monday nights at Club Dreamerz. Artists go to small neighborhood places like the Rainbo Club and Maxtavern where the bartenders create the musical mood, swinging from Brian Eno one minute to Brandenburg concertos the next. Sports enthusiasts hang out at Jim McMahon's, Ditka's, or the Ultimate Sports Bar and Grill. Lots of gay men sing and sway along with Judy, Bette, and Babs at the faaabulous Broadway nights Mondays at Sidetrack. The list goes on and on.
At the Rainbo Club, a former polka joing that's become a comfortably hip neighborhood hangout, you can make the scene—or just get in the picture.
Still, crowds are fickle, crowds come and go, crowds move and overlap, and what club circuit there is can change in a nanosecond. But those in the know, know that (at least this second) it's Sunday at OutTakes, Monday at Neo, Tuesday at Exit, Wednesday at Smart Bar; Thursday's a wild card, and they're all busy Friday and Saturday.
Chicago's not New York, not an international hub of fashion and art, no matter what anyone tells you. Most big dance places are fairly empty during the week, and even taverns stay pretty mellow. "Chicago's a working town. Everyone goes to work at 8:30 in the morning," says Caitlin Fortis, a model for the Elite agency and co-owner of Neo. "But on the weekends they're looking for what's cool, or at least perceived to be cool."
Go ahead, choose your poison. As club demi-celeb Nuzio Fresta says, "Everyone expects the club to do this and that for them—well, I think people should just realize that they have to create the fun. The club is simply a set, you know; everyone there is just an actor."
Watching the you-know-whats at OutTakes.
"Oh, the bar with the fish?" numerous people asked when I said I was going to OutTakes, a good-looking bar and gallery in the Hard Rock Cafe/Limelight district. "A lot of photographers hang out there, right?" Well, yes and maybe. In the club's front room is a long, curved bar; the top foot or so is one big fish tank. At first glance it's like, wow, cool, look at the fish. But you know what? The fish are dull—they're mostly grayish and all they do is swim, eat, and presumably die. On the other hand, the photographers—or at least the nonfish in the place—are not dull, and OutTakes can be a hoot and a half, especially on Sundays, when a live reggae band performs. Its rep for being a den of picture takers may be overblown: Any place with a reputation eventually sees hangers-on and wannabes take over. Even so, Skrebneski and Irving Penn could be flashing away and most people, frankly, wouldn't notice. They're all too busy looking at the you-know-what.
Bucktown Saturday night: The decor at Danny's is two parts kitsch, one part kitchen—and the jukebox is pure state-of-the-lost-art.
Danny's, in the first floor of a small house on a Bucktown side street, resembles a bookie joint more than a nightspot. Guys out back throw darts and chomp stogies, while up front a woman in a push-up brasserie is doing a spontaneous interpretive dance around my bar stool to Wilson Pickett's "Funky Broadway." Elvis kitsch, a Mr. T bust, X-mas tinsel and lights, and a poster for a 1966 Ann-Margaret movie called The Swinger ("She swings like nothing ever swung") decorate the walls. There are Beer-Nuts and Jays potato chips for sale, upturned garbage cans for tables, and the clatter of a good-time crowd. The juke box is decidedly low-tech but pretty terrific and stocked with 14 Elvis selections—from "Rock-a-Hula Baby to "Viva Las Vegas" to "Girls! Girls! Girls!"
The bar people's choice is Weeds, a trash heap with a soul, where the Mexican Howlin' Wolf presides over the young, restless, and brain-weird.
I'm sitting on yet another stool, but this time at Weeds—the Mexican serape covering the bar is making my elbow sweat—and trying to order a beer. Sergio Mayora, who bills himself as the Mexican Howlin' Wolf, is bartending, but he's wearing dark sunglasses, so it's not clear where he's looking. Every time I think he's looking my way, I yell out my order, but to no avail. It's OK, because I'm staring at the ceiling, from which dangle remnants of past theme evenings: shoes (pumps, spectators, slingbacks, sandals, sneakers, golf shoes), bras, men's underwear, lingerie. Located in the shadow of a John M. Smyth Homemakers, Weeds is a benign dump, filled with cullings from dumpsters far and wide, and that's just how we like it, thank you. There are poetry readings some nights, live music others. Tonight it's open mike interspersed with juke-box favorites, like T. Valentine's "Hello, Lucille, Are You a Lesbian?" followed by Dusty Springfield singing, "Do I Have to Come Right Out and Say It?" A little later, out front, where someone has dragged an Oriental rug, people are leaning against cars. A couple guys in Birkenstocks are playing the banjo, and a man uses this come-on to the woman sprawled out on the sidewalk in front of me: "I must hae brain waves, man, I must be brain-weird. So, your sister's at Kenny Rogers, huh?"
Take the Sistine Chapel, add a lot of future schlock, some glass brick, chain link, and a Jackson Pollock paint job. That's Esoteria.
A mere 24 hours later, I'm all dolled up and taking a leak in the gods' room of Esoteria (though under completely different owners, both Esoteria and Cristal label their restrooms "Gods" and "Goddesses") when a guy shoves his business card in my face. "Dude, dude," he says, as if we were frat brothers, "take this, you know, just in case." Then he leans the card—he's a lawyer for a firm that shall remain nameless—against the flusher, cracks up, and walks out. Esoteria is a pastiche of even more design cliches than Cristal. There's ersatz decay, Sistine Chapel reproductions, glass brick, metal cable, Jackson Pollock-inspired drippings on the floor, Day-Glo paint on the walls, and a chain-link fence surrounding one of the dance floors. The juke box up front is filled with CDs: the DJ out back plays lots of David Bowie and Talking Heads. Women with hardly any noses (left) dance with one another and gaggles of guys with gold chains stand around and watch. Most people here call the place "Esoterica."
Inside, Neo is all concrete and hard edge—Lower Wacker with a bar. Outside, the scene spills into the hippest alley in town.
"We're trying to attract people who can at least pronounce the name of the club," says Neo's Fortis, as he surveys his Monday night crowd. After nine years of existence, Neo is still going strong, much of its success due to Fortis's insistence that the club change its interpretation of itself every 18 months or so. The new look is inspired by the hard-edged feel of Lower Wacker Drive and very Chicago. And there's none of the faux/mock/ersatz stuff that was the hallmark of hip two years ago: Everything here is—shall we say?—vrai. There's a 4,000 pound concrete-and-terrazo bar top, rough, cement-coated walls, and another bar made of real zinc that sells lime-stuffed Coronas and tequila. On Mondays Neo is filled with artists, actors, and lots of taut-looking, high-cheekboned model types from Elite. (And I did meet an artist, Allison, who makes "organized graffiti" while doing real-estate deals on the side.) The dance floor is packed with a gay and straight, black and white crowd, the most mixed I've seen anywhere next to Berlin. Everyone is glossy and hot, sweating up a storm of fun, even Grandpa Neo, a bearded, elderly gentleman in a Neo jacket who's been hanging out here for more than six years. "I'll be back next week," he says as he walks out, waving, "if I'm still alive."
Me too, Gramps. Me too.