I only met Ric Hess, the longtime co-owner of the Lake View bar Sheffield’s, a handful of times, but he was right up there among the most gregarious proprietors I’ve known. Hess died of a heart attack in January, and I still think about him every time I drive past his place.
My most memorable Hess encounter was when he helped me pick out a pumpkin for Sheffield’s annual carving contest last October. He was in his element that night, posing for pictures with patrons and their pumpkins, working the room, recommending beers, and generally being the life of the party. In Hess’s absence, his business partner of 19 years, Rocky Albazi—an architect who most recently designed the restaurants The Purple Pig, Sepia, and Chicago Cut—is running the show.
I was curious to find out how Sheffield’s is doing without its front man, so on Tuesday night, my editor, Jennifer, and I decided to stop in for a brew. Jennifer oversees this blog and also edits the Cheers column I write for the print magazine, and although we e-mail back and forth all the livelong day about bars and beer and booze, we rarely sit down face to face over anything stronger than coffee. It was high time.
Jennifer ordered New Belgium’s Le Terroir (“Wow, that’s sour!” she exclaimed after her first sip), and I tried to make a responsible choice and stick with a low-alcohol-content brew. I was leaning toward Magic Hat’s Number 9, but when I mentioned the name, our red-haired bartender cocked an eyebrow ever so slightly.
“What? No good?” I asked.
“It’s just not my thing,” she shrugged. I ended up going with her suggestion, New Belgium’s Golden Cap, a pale, summery beer—and alas, seven percent alcohol. After two pints, my boss and I were well into a candid exploration of Career and Life Issues.
After a while, I reminded Jennifer that I needed to take a few notes. From our perch at the front bar, we looked around to evaluate the crowd. “I haven’t been here in years,” said Jennifer, a West Side denizen, “but the crowd’s older than I remembered. Everyone’s not 22. That’s a good thing.”
“It’s comfortable, right?” I asked. “If Ric were here, I bet he’d be table-hopping.” Sheffield’s was nearly full at 7 p.m. on a Tuesday, and the crowd seemed casual and relaxed—no doubt a testament to the home-away-from-home atmosphere Hess had encouraged for close to two decades.
Today, when I called Albazi to ask if he’s been making any changes over the past few months, he only mentioned one: installing 12 new draft lines to bring the number of taps close to 50 by the end of April. “There are so many new beers coming out, we wanted to be able to offer more options,” he said. He hasn’t nailed down the specifics of which beers he’ll add, but Hess and Albazi’s M.O. was always local breweries first, then regional, then national, so at least a few more homegrown options are probably a safe bet. Albazi and his “beer dude,” Bob Egan, haven’t finalized their list of specials for May’s Chicago Craft Beer Week yet, but I suspect their priorities will fall in the aforementioned order.
And, speaking of Hess, how has Sheffield’s been getting along without him? “He was the day-to-day face of the bar, and I’ve kind of been taking over that role,” Albazi says. “We have good staff, good managers, and we’re getting ourselves organized.” The best tribute Sheffield’s can offer in memory of its former owner, Albazi says, is “to keep on going in our own way.” Cheers to that.