Gunner's in Wicker Park
Gunner’s, in Wicker Park

Riding home on the back of The Creative Director’s motorcycle last night, I passed bar after bar, and with nothing else to do but hold on and occasionally admire the Super Harvest Moon, I peered in all of those bars’ windows and played my favorite game: Been There. John’s Place (been there), the Local Option (been there), Uncle Fatty’s (been there), Mad River (nope), Vaughan’s Pub (nope), Sheffield’s (been there), Redmond’s (nope), Berlin (been there), Beer (nope), Dark Horse (been there), Harry Caray’s (been there).

Hog's Boss at Gunner's
The Hog’s Boss

Some of the bars were empty; some had just a few drinkers; but others—sometimes right next door to the dead spots—were packed on a Wednesday night. The crowd contrast put me in a reflective mood: What do those packed bars know that the others don’t? Why walk into one watering hole over another almost identical one on the very same block?

I had just been on a three-bar odyssey myself. My first stop was Eno, the wine, cheese, and chocolate lounge at the Intercontinental Hotel—always a comfortable spot for a postwork glass of vino with a colleague. The last stop was another wine bar and one of The Creative Director’s eternal faves: the cozy and personality-rich Webster’s, where we tried something I’d never had before, Txakolina (sounds like “chocolina”), from the Basque region of Spain. When I first heard the word, I thought we were in for a sweet treat—maybe a cupcake—but it turned out to be almost as good: a sparkling white wine “of joy and affirmation” that the bartender poured from a carafe held high above the glass.

The middle stop was a new spot, Gunner’s, in Wicker Park. Open just two months, Gunner’s is still figuring out how to get the local crowd to drop in on weeknights. “All the bars around here are so sceney that the people in their 30s and 40s have been leaving the neighborhood to go out,” says Eric Palm, who was with The Matchbox for 15 years and now owns Gunner’s with his brother, Dan, formerly of the Matchbox’s adjoining restaurant, The Silver Palm (named in part after Eric by the longtime owners, with whom Eric and Dan remain close).

A smattering of patrons sat at Gunner’s sidewalk tables but, inside, business was slow. It was only 7 p.m. when I ordered my first cocktail ($9), so I surmised the regulars might wander in later. There was good music playing at a reasonable volume; Dan mixed a refreshing gimlet (though I’d ask for mine in a non-sloshy highball glass the next time); the barstools were comfortable; and there was plenty of action to witness outside the open windows. If I lived down the street, Gunner’s would be a frequent hangout. Even though I don’t live right down the street, I’ll probably go back for the Hog’s Boss ($8), the brothers’ signature sandwich of pork loin, sliced bratwurst, bacon sauerkraut, and chipotle mayonnaise—especially after the guys told me a story about Anthony Bourdain’s visit to the Silver Palm a couple of years back, when (the brothers swear) the acerbic chef and TV host pronounced one of Dan’s creations “the best sandwich in America.”

Nightlifers are notoriously fickle, to the peril of anyone who invests financially and emotionally in owning a bar. It’s like Heidi Klum says: One day you’re in, and the next day you’re out. But sometimes it just takes a while for a new spot to catch on, and as I watched Eric chatting with his wife, his brother, and an old high-school buddy who’s also on the payroll, I hoped this family business would.

P.S. Tonight I’m heading to the Dana Hotel to sit down with Jersey Shore’s Sammi “Sweetheart” Giancola before she appears at OK! Magazine’s fifth-anniversary party at the hotel’s rooftop lounge, Vertigo Sky. I’m not counting my chickens before they hatch, since last winter I was stood up by The Situation and snubbed by Snooki (cast members have cancelled several Chicago appearances, so I approach any Jersey Shore interview with skepticism). The early portion of the party is private, but the afterparty, starting at 9 p.m., is open to the public with no cover. Check back Friday for my Sammi Q&A, and if there’s anything you’ve always wanted to ask her—Is it possible to be famous and still a Sweetheart?—leave your questions in the comments section below.


Photography: Brad Taylor