3542 N Halsted St. (3600N, 800W)
Chicago, IL 60657
"The grilled cheese funhouse"
A nightlife contradiction, 44th Ward Dinner Party is both more restaurant than bar and more bar than restaurant. Mix a cheese-centric menu, eccentric décor and dance bar sensibilities, while catering to an equally gay/straight clientele and you have a little neighborhood spot that has something for everyone or, maybe, not enough for anyone.
"The Ward," as it's locally known, resides in a century-old graystone, just outside the official entrance to the Boystown corridor and a cry for help south of the 23rd District headquarters (once the city hall prior to Lakeview's annexation by the City of Chicago in 1889). Formerly the home to the dance bar Lakeview Broadcasting Company, LBC's former owner took in partners from River North's Angels & Kings to create this hybrid comfort food-club. Past the subdued green awning and small backlit sign, a disco ball spins above the Ward's entrance. Your first hint to the place's many contradictions.
Enter a dim, small street-level foyer outfitted with an antique settee, bookcases and furniture, which look like they were nicked from a Merchant & Ivory film. Directly to your left is a pitch black corridor leading to a pair of unisex bathrooms, which have had the deadbolts drilled out so there's no way to lock the door. (I get the feeling that the patrons were using the facilities for other activities, if you know what I mean—and I think that you do.)
A short staircase and railing separate the foyer from the rest of the smallish space. A small L-shaped bar takes up takes up a good portion of the northern wall, though it only offers seating for 8-10. The dining area offers nine tables with two-top banquette seating along the walls and a larger communal table in the center. The house DJ, who spins weekends after 10pm, takes up shop in the bar's back room, which has some lounge seating and a little room to shake your moneymaker. Patterned wallpaper, electric candle sconces and dark wood accents complete the Victorian theme. But the most interesting feature inside is the small glassed-in space would have been the porch of this converted house.
Cocktails are front and center. In addition to five signature mixed drinks, the Ward specializes in strong pours of traditional favorites like manhattans and martinis. Normally $9-10, cocktails are just $5 on Fridays and Saturdays, an excellent weekend special for libation enthusiasts. And that's good, because the beer selection could be written on the back of a stamp. Bottled and can offerings number ten, or 11 if you consider PBR a beer, and are often more expensive than the cocktails on weekends. Tap offerings number zero.
And that's too bad, because a cold beer goes nicely with grilled cheese, the Ward's primary focus. Starting at $6, choose among 11 breads, 11 cheeses and three infused butters to which you can add another 20 toppings for $1-2 each. Fries are extra, but homemade chips are brought out when you're seated. The decent sweet and savory fries are included with the 10 signature sandwiches, which all feature cheese in some form. My "Rooftop," essentially a ham & cheese on pretzel bread, was served sloppily, with the top and bottom fused together in a sandwich over-bite that could only be corrected with some messy tableside surgery. For $10, I expected better. The tomato bisque was quite good, however, as was a sampled "Red Line." Mac & cheese is the only other dinner item on the menu, so if you're on cholesterol medication, you might want to grab a bite first. $10 on Mondays will get you a full meal and (domestic) beer, $1 traditional grilled cheese sandwiches are served after midnight and, oddly, kids eat free every night before 7pm.
"Fries no longer come with the sandwiches (supposedly wasteful as 'not everyone eats their fries'... huh?) and come on... $8 for a can of Guinness? Not even draft, but a can? Look at it this way: the can goes for the same price as a glass of champagne. May as well live the high life, baby!"
– Jelena Z. on Yelp (August 28, 2009)
The Ward does have crayons, however, which were actually intended for Rock & Roll bingo, played on Thursdays. Match the classic rock and Top 40 song to the artists on the supplied sheet and win a free mystery shot. While I came up short, it did make for a fun diversion. Overall, I like the inclusive nature of the Ward, which extends to the friendly and accommodating service. The Ward attracts a slightly older Lakeview following during the week (they're open 5:30-11pm, closed Tuesdays) and a younger party crowd on weekends (2am Friday, 3am Saturday), who come for the flirting, dancing and overall lack of judgment. Expect the music to be bumping even when the DJ isn't spinning, so those on a first date or looking for quiet conversation should plan accordingly.
If you're looking for some "cheesy" fun in Lakeview, the Ward can make for a gouda time. If you like 44th Ward Dinner Party more than my puns, you may want to visit Silver Cloud in Wicker Park for the comfort food or iTouch in West Lakeview for the loungey singles scene. For more information, check out the 44th Ward Dinner Party's website. It's been a slice.