As I stood in the rain last night, waiting to cross the street to Big Star (1531 N. Damen Ave.; 773-235-4039), I could already see them on the blacktop out front: the Wicker Park hipsters, hunched coolly in vintage peacoats and smoking cigarettes on the same patio where, not long ago, people with tattoos and big dogs used to while away warm Sunday afternoons over endless rounds at the Pontiac Café. Now, a younger, spiffier crowd was packing the bar to its much cleaner rafters, listening to old-school country music on the turntable, chatting up friends under the dim light bulbs, and packing away $2 tacos and $3 bourbon shots.
I lingered inside the front door waiting for Mark, a friend who lives in the neighborhood, and exchanged hellos with Anika, a fellow patron who informed me of two useful bits of protocol: 1) Big Star is cash only, though there’s an ATM just inside the door charging a relatively steep $3 fee (i.e., the equivalent of one-and-a-half tacos); and 2) Only parties of four or more can put their names on the list for the bar’s few tables. Anika, who hosted a weekly Thursday night world-music party at Sonotheque before the club’s closing (“Can you believe that!” we exclaimed, shaking our heads), is also a server at Tocco (more on Sonotheque’s Joe Bryl below). “I’d wouldn’t want to wait tables here,” she said. “Look around. This is a camping spot. People are just sitting here, camping out.”
That meant Mark and I would have to angle for stools at the big, square bar, which was already surrounded by groups watching for openings with hawkish fervor. “I tried to come here last Monday but had to give up and go to Violet Hour,” Mark said, sidling up next to me. “The thing is, everyone’s here to try the food, and they’re not going to eat it standing up.” We made a slow lap around the bar; stood and chatted distractedly while scanning for open wallets; and, finally, near despair, began to discuss the possibility of bailing. Just then, a couple sitting nearby started to gather their jackets. “You’re in luck,” the guy said, smiling in our direction. Mark looked nervously around at the crowd and muttered, “Yeah, if we don’t get lynched first.” We swooped in, trying to ignore other crestfallen hopefuls.
The bartender and general manager, also named Mark, handed us two brown paper menus and gave us the rundown on Big Star’s 50 bourbons and 20 tequilas. But it was only a Wednesday, so we opted for beers (a $3 Lone Star for me, a $5 Lagunitas Brown Shugga’ for Mark), chips and guac ($4), and six tacos ($2 to $3 each), which quickly emerged from the kitchen window.
“That kitchen pumps out 1,000 tacos a night, sometimes,” said Mark the manager from behind the bar. That number should grow exponentially next Monday, when Big Star opens its walk-up takeout window.
I was sipping my Lone Star and humming along to a jangly version of “Man of Constant Sorrow” when a hand reached toward our basket of chips. “I heard these were good. Can I try one?” a voice asked. I turned to find Mike, a fellow writer and non-stranger, crunching away alongside several other friends who’d just walked in. We all ordered $1 mini Schlitz beers to celebrate our unplanned reunion, and then, our recent hunger pangs and barstool anxiety long forgotten, ordered another round. Happy campers, one and all.
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Elsewhere on the nightlife front: In the wake of recent news that Sonotheque’s Joe Bryl has landed at the Charleston, our intrepid intern and Bucktown resident Marthe Leach took it upon herself to find out what, exactly, was going on at her favorite neighborhood bar. Her findings:
When the Charleston was put up for sale earlier this year, next-door-neighbor Jeremy Lewin worried that the new owners would turn the homey, unfussy tavern into a sports bar. To prevent such a fate, he bought it himself. "We just want to clean up the dirty edges and do our programming," says Bryl, who Lewin has hired as manager. But don’t expect many more of the bar’s bluegrass or opera nights: Bryl is looking to replace one form of eclectic with another, with DJs spinning jazz, soul, and Brazilian music on weekends, and live music on weekdays only. As for the spot’s signature year-round Christmas lights, they’re already gone, and more change is coming. The bar will be extended into the back room, a new sound system is in the works, and low wooden tables, 1920s-style light fixtures, and vintage couches will create what Bryl calls a lounge-like feel. While he plans to keep PBR on tap and prices low, Bryl envisions a new drink list—"classic cocktails, something Matchbox-esque but not Violet Hour-esque"—plus art shows and movie nights; ETA for the completed overhaul: February. It all sounds awfully similar to Danny’s, just a few blocks away (1951 W. Dickens Ave.)—but at least it won’t be another sports bar. –M. L.