Beauty Bar's new Chicago location (formerly Sonotheque)
Chicago’s new Beauty Bar

Soon after my college roommate and I turned 21, we embarked on an L.A. adventure that included a stop at the city’s then-newest nightspot: the retro-salon-themed Beauty Bar, now a national chain with locations from Vegas to New York. There was a line down the block, which we—two distinctly non-VIP Kentuckians—somehow skipped. I still have a photo from that night of me sucking in my cheeks under one of the old-fashioned hair dryers alongside a girl I’d just met who, in true L.A. fashion, is more than almost famous these days, playing Abby on NCIS.

When I heard a Chicago location was opening this spring in the old Sonotheque space, I got out that picture and studied my ten-years-ago face. I tried to remember everything I could about Beauty Bar, which amounted to: kitschy, loud, and kind of fun. Then I thought about how quickly concept bars come and go, and I wondered how a chain that’s been around for so long is still expanding.

A week after the bar’s Chicago launch, I gathered a few friends to find out. “This was Sonotheque?” one asked. “I barely recognize it.” “I know; don’t you love it?” I exclaimed, reaching out to touch a glittery teal blue wall. Though we’d aimed to arrive early enough to beat the wait for the famed $10 martini-and-manicure special—which starts at 5 p.m. nightly and continues until 11 p.m. or later—we first had to order a drink, then get on the list for a manicure: basically a fancy polish change for girls or a hand massage, file, and buff for guys. “Two Perms, please,” I said to the pretty, tattooed bartender. “Um, those are really strong,” she warned, knitting her brows in concern. “We can handle it,” I assured her. My date took one sip (Sailor Jerry rum, plus lime, cranberry, and orange juices) and pronounced it an alcoholic Skittles.

Meanwhile, a friend who’s a sound technician set about finding the DJ to request a volume adjustment. It was a relief when Fabulette, who spins 1960s-girl-group hits every first Thursday, lowered the bebop to a conversation-friendly level, allowing my pal Jenny to start in on her evaluation of the room—and everything else. “It’s deliciously distasteful,” she declared. “Diamond chandeliers! And look,” she said, pointing to patrons in pencil skirts and peep-toe heels, “the clientele has come in costume.”

We passed an hour or so in a chatty cluster, awaiting our manicures and watching the hipsters twist on the dance floor. For some, Beauty Bar’s DJ lineup is a bigger draw than the cheap and boozy polish change; big names have included members of Vampire Weekend and Passion Pit. And therein, I think, lies the spot’s staying power: A fun place to dance and a rollicking retro shtick never really go out of style, and the latter makes this lighthearted lounge less intimidating than a full-fledged nightclub. Just watch out for the bar’s spindly stools. Maybe it was too many Perms, but we saw fellow patrons tip over every few minutes.

Staring at that old photo again back at home, I can only hope my own look holds up as well as Beauty Bar’s. Maybe ten years isn’t that long. After all, those disco-ball earrings are still in the repertoire.

1444 W. Chicago Ave.


Photograph: Chris Guillen