by Sarah Preston

All dressed up-or down-and no place to go? Until recently, that was the Friday-night quandary for scenesters in Wicker Park. Despite the myriad hipster haunts dotting the ‘hood, it was hard to find a spot that appealed to both low-key loungers (decked out in last year’s boot-cut jeans) and high fashionistas (done up in this season’s skinny-legs).

dj whiteshadow patrons at wicker park's empire liquors
In good spirits: Bar patrons and DJ Whiteshadow gather at Wicker Park’s new Empire Liquors

But at the October opening of Empire Liquors (1566 N. Milwaukee Ave.), I knew I had discovered the hottest new drinking den for denim lovers of all stripes. And not just because DJ Whiteshadow was spinning Justin Timberlake’s “SexyBack” as I scoured the room for a few fresh faces. This bar marks another of Matt Eisler’s brainstorms (Elm Street Liquors, Victory Liquors), and he’s got the credibility and laid-back charm to make it work. “We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel,” the 30-year-old Eisler tells me, shyly. “We’re just giving the area what it needs.” He should know; he spent close to a year negotiating the space formerly occupied by Eddy Clearwater’s Reservation Blues (Clearwater is still Eisler’s landlord).

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Eisler knows how to fill a void in the nightlife scene, with spots that cater to their respective neighborhoods. Empire perfectly echoes the mix of its home turf: trendy without trying too hard. The bar doesn’t take itself too seriously, although you wouldn’t know it from the painstaking attention to detail: gothic, arched entryways; colorful backlighting behind the bar; white antler fixtures dotting the wall; and contemporary chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. Eisler mixed in raw elements, too, like tree trunks that serve as stools, and a herringbone-slate floor.

But it’s the ambitious drink menu that really grabbed us. Bargoers can create their own sippers by picking a flavored syrup-such as vanilla, lychee, candied orange, and grape, plus sugar–free varieties-to spice up a vodka and soda. Eisler calls the resulting drinks “hard Italian sodas,” a twist he thought up during his many trips to Filter, the coffeehouse across the street.

Celebrity Beat
Oscar-nominated actress Laura Linney, whose 1996 breakout role in Primal Fear included scenes shot at Chicago’s own John Barleycorn, visited town in October to host a Habitat for Humanity event at Tod’s. Decked out in head-to-toe Tod’s-natch-Linney took a few minutes to dish on fellow celebs. “Robin Williams is one of the kindest, funniest people; I’ve never laughed so hard in my life on set,” she told me of her Man of the Year costar. In the spirit of politics, I asked Linney how she felt about the possibility of Barack Obama running for president in 2008. “He’s a breath of fresh air for everybody,” she said. “But I’m also a big fan of Hillary Clinton’s.” Linney has two other films in postproduction: The Nanny Diaries and Breach, which costars another celeb at the tip of tabloid fodder lately, Ryan Philippe. “He’s adorable,” Linney gushed.

photography: Chris Guillen