Inside the new Moe's Cantina
The vast new Moe’s Cantina

It’s a typical bar-opening tale, but the staff at Moe’s Cantina—a brand-new River North sequel to the Wrigleyville original—tells it as wide-eyed as anyone: “We only got our liquor license literally, like, two hours ago. You should have seen this place at 10:30 a.m. You’d never have believed we were opening tonight!”

I probably wouldn’t have believed it since, at 8:30 p.m. last night, the bar looked pretty much like a neighborhood fixture—a giant neighborhood fixture. I’ve never been to the Wrigleyville Moe’s (word on the street is it’s the kind of rowdy spot you frequent when you move to the city right after college), but when I hear “cantina,” I imagine something, well, teeny. But with a barnlike capacity of 600—and seeming miles of chandeliers, railings, tables, and chairs, all fashioned from heavy wrought iron—this is one ranch-size canteen.

With my friends Tim and Robert in tow, I scored a slightly elevated booth facing out toward the action; the two steps required to climb into these tables provides the sort of bird’s-eye feel I particularly enjoy, as a person who can rarely see over anyone’s head. I was also glad to have the bar’s 23 flatscreens out of view on the wall behind us since, as I’ve stated before and probably will again, I don’t need to be distracted by flashing, illuminated images when I’m trying to spend quality time with live humans.

Starving after hitting up the AIDS Foundation of Chicago’s World of Chocolate benefit at the Hilton Chicago (Who am I kidding? We’d already gorged ourselves on sweets), we dove into a basket of chips as if it was our first meal off the island. We ordered various margaritas from the specialty cocktail menu (most drinks run $9 to $12) and turned to this particular trio’s preferred list of topics: 1) the physical attributes and possible sexual orientation of every man in the room; 2) our most recent job interviews; and 3) the amount of Holiday Heft, or Turkey Tummy, or Jingle-Bell Jiggle each of us has recently accumulated.

Even as we debated just how much more Winter Waddle it would take to split a pants seam, we ordered a few bites off the food menu—some skewers ($8 to $10 each) and paella ($26; serves two)—but the people-watching and drinks were the real stars of the show. While most folks were of the jeans-clad variety, one guy was wearing what appeared to be a full-length fur coat patched together from Dalmatian hide and topped with a hood bearing pointy wolf ears. Surely a fake, don’t you think?

Animal skins aside, last night’s scene was a far cry from the frat-house vibe I’ve heard tell of at Moe’s big brother to the north. I’ll be interested to see if this location, in River North—home of upwardly mobile young suits who’ve traded kamikaze shots for kir royals—will keep things on the grown-up side as it settles into its cavernous home.