Big Ten sports bars packed with recent grads. Pub floors sticky with cheap beer. DePaul students dancing until 3 a.m. before a pizza run on the way back to the dorms. This is Lincoln Park nightlife.
Or is it? A recent crop of seriously buzzed-about bars and restaurants opening in Lincoln Park—Morso, 2 Sparrows, The Barrelhouse Flat, Butcher & The Burger among them—is bringing with it a new kind of energy the neighborhood hasn’t felt in a while.
With its powder blue walls and vest-wearing bartender, Morso’s upstairs cocktail lounge feels more like Logan Square’s The Whistler than anything else nearby. At breakfast-and-lunch cafe 2 Sparrows, foie gras pop tarts and giant tater tots push the envelope beyond the typical brunch fare served at other neighborhood spots. The extensive cocktail menu at The Barrelhouse Flat gives craft cocktail trailblazer The Violet Hour in Wicker Park a run for its money.
And there are more spots like this on the way (see "New and coming soon," below).
So why this mini-explosion in this established North Side ‘hood when the rest of the bar and restaurant world seems to have their eye on more up-and-coming neighborhoods such as Logan Square or Pilsen?
Stephen Cole, a former Violet Hour mixologist who last month opened his throwback cocktail lounge, The Barrelhouse Flat, among a strip of taverns on Lincoln Avenue, says he saw a need in the neighborhood.
“Logan Square … already [has] their cocktail bar,” he said. “Lincoln Park didn’t have those middle-class kind of spots. You’ve got Alinea [where dinner costs in the hundreds per person] on one end and then all the sports bars on the other.”
“People were surprised” when they first heard about his chosen location, he said. “They kind of shrugged their shoulders, cracked a joke.”
Cole is not the only one betting on Lincoln Park with a start-up that might sound better suited to other ’hoods.
Chef Allen Sternweiler’s burger shop, Butcher & The Burger, which recently opened down the street from chain burger spot Johnny Rocket’s, is breaking the mold with elk burgers and smoked-bacon frozen custard. He and his business partner deliberately chose Lincoln Park over less established neighborhoods that they thought might have been more risky.
“The neigborhood has already established itself over many, many years,” Sternweiler said. “It's close to downtown, it's close to the zoo, it's close to the highway and there seems to be enough disposable income there.”
He added: “I used to live in Pilsen ... and I think [it] still has another five years to go before I would consider going down there.”
Kevin Boehm and Rob Katz of the Boka Restaurant Group chose Lincoln Park for their first restaurant, Boka, back in 2003, before Grant Achatz’s Alinea moved in just steps away in 2005. The two chose to stay in the neighborhood for their newest project, Balena, which will showcase the cooking prowess of Chris Pandel, chef at trendy Bucktown restaurant The Bristol, along with pastry chef Amanda Rockman, most recently seen on “Top Chef: Just Desserts.”
“In order to do really big numbers, you want to be able to get everything … the destination diner, the between 5-7 [p.m.] crowd—check there because you have [theaters such as] Steppenwolf, Second City, Royal George—and you want to be able to have concierges send guests to your restaurant [from downtown hotels],” Katz said.
But pre-theater cocktailers and lunching moms don’t necessarily equal a successful run in Lincoln Park, and new spots that don’t have the name recognition of the Boka Group face the challenge of fitting into the neighborhood’s young nightlife scene fueled by new-to-Chicago young professionals and students at DePaul, one of the neighborhood’s anchors.When the latter group hit The Barrelhouse Flat on its opening weekend, worlds collided. Rather than experimenting with new tastes off the lounge’s $10 cocktail list, co-eds filled table after table with pints of cheap beer.
“I’m a grad student on a budget,” said DePaul student Hailly Wakeland, 22. “I don’t have the money to spend on [an expensive] cocktail.”
And while some Lincoln Park residents think a non-student crowd from other neighborhoods could be persuaded to visit these new spots, it remains to be seen whether they’ll draw consistent business.
Ariel Delarosa, 22, who recently moved to Lincoln Park from Logan Square, thinks The Barrelhouse Flat is a good alternative to the normal Lincoln Avenue scene, but she doubts the flood of trendier openings signal a bigger change.