Reflective of a national trend, the Gold Star Sardine Bar was one of the last cabarets in Chicago until it closed in 1997. Sadly, I never had the opportunity to drop in before it closed—though, even today, it remains in fairly the same condition, just closed to the public. It's a shame because Gold Star the place that helped launch the career of local jazz divas, Stephanie Browning, Eden Atwood and Patricia Barber. While considered a cabaret and was it still open today, the Gold Star Sardine Bar would rival the most popular Chicago jazz clubs like the Green Mill, Andy's, and Jazz Showcase.
The Gold Star Sardine Bar used to be located in the 666 N. Lake Shore Drive building (renamed 680 so as not to spook the condo-dwellers there) at the corner of Erie and Lake Shore Drive (the Inner Drive, that is), and is not to be confused with Wicker Park's Gold Star Bar. Although both establishments may have opened around the same time, the Gold Star Bar is still going strong. The Gold Star Sardine Bar was perhaps named such because it could only hold about 50 people. On weekends, daunting lines of patrons seeking live jazz and torch music would stretch down the block. Inside, patrons were packed in like sardines amongst a bar with swiveling wicker barstools and fine artwork. It is said that even big names like Liza Minnelli would often show up while in town. Dennis McCarthy described this watering hole in The Great Chicago Bar & Saloon Guide (1985) as follows, "Inside a beautifully old building you will find the Gold Star, an expensive lounge decorated in a modern imitation of 1940's New York hotel bar chic. The place is tiny, dimly lit and decorated with a series of photos from the 1940's which, except for their historical association, seem to have no relevance." Gold Star was also known to serve a mean martini. Peter Struck notes this in his article, The Martini Uncovered: "this club's martini lives up to its high-toned, loungey setting with an almost comically over-sized glass of gin, matching olive, and a leggy chanteuse."
"I lived one year in Chicago in 1986 and fell in love on a first date at the Sardine Bar. I was right out of college and I'd never been to a place with such sophistication. The ageless, beautiful patrons were all dressed in black and white, seeming to have just stepped out a 40's movie. Each high table had a silver box of cigarettes upon it. This was unheard of during that politically correct era, and the establishment's blithe assumption that the silver boxes wouldn't be stolen seemed in keeping with the anachronistic feeling of the place. Yet at the end of the evening, they were all still there. I was very disappointed to learn the place itself is now gone. I remembered the vaguely dangerous-sounding address -- 666 Lakeshore Drive -- from my original visit. When I brought a group of friends back to look for it years later, there was no 666 Lakeshore Drive, and I began to wonder if I had dreamed the whole thing. Thanks for bringing it back, at least in words, as I had remembered it."
– Jed Arkin (September 30, 2003)
"I too fell in love at the Gold Star Sardine Bar. It was a man that I barely knew, we were just having a drink. It seemed that everyone around us that night were into each other, you could say, 'love was in the air.' Well at one point, I remember thinking, this man is so wonderful, then at that very moment, he took my hand. It has been nine years, nine years today as a matter of fact and our lives have been for ever changed."
– C.C. (February 28, 2006)
Stephanie Browning, a smoky-voice alto songstress, moved to Chicago from Boulder, Colorado in 1991, and originally got her start at the now-shuttered Jimo's. She played there with Chicago jazz legend Gene Esposito who unfortunately is no longer with us, as he passed away in 1999. Following some performances at Jimo's and singing at weddings, things weren't panning out very well until she landed a gig at the Gold Star on Monday nights when someone noticed her at a retirement party. One night a week became two, then five, and then Stephanie was headlining on weekends. In 1997, Browning released her first CD on HEREnow Records, entitled "Stephanie Browning: Live at the Gold Star." The recording was made with Chicagoan Jeremy Kahn on piano, who also used to play at Gold Star with his trio. While the Sardine Bar is gone, part of the sound there can be found on this CD. Stephanie Browning still plays in Chicago, at places like the Webster's Wine Bar, Plaza Tavern and Lush Life.
Eden Atwood also headlined at the Gold Star Sardine Bar in the 1990's. You may know Eden from her stint on ABC's, "The Commish," daytime drama, "Loving," or as a guest star in the classic Chicago film, "The Untouchables." While Eden has worked as a model, as well as actress, her love seems to lie with jazz. She has performed in New York at the Oak Room of the Algonquin Hotel, and in Chicago at the Tavern on the Green and Michael's Pub. Today, Eden Atwood can occasionally be found performing at Chicago's Pops for Champagne.
Patricia Barber is perhaps the most famous of all former Sardine Bar performers. Patricia is originally from the Chicago suburbs and is the daughter of Floyd "Shim" Barber, a saxophonist that performed around Chicago and who sat in with the Glenn Miller Orchestra when they were in town. Barber's mother was a blues vocalist. Floyd taught Patricia the piano, beginning at the age of five. Unfortunately, his tutelage ended when he passed away when she was only nine. The family then moved out to Sioux City, Iowa. Later, Patricia graduated from the University of Iowa with a double major in classical music and psychology. She then came to Chicago and, as with Eden Atwood, had a difficult period in the first year until she landed a five-night-a-week gig at the Gold Star Sardine Bar. Before long there were lines outside the door on weekends. Soon afterwards, Barber put out her first album Split in 1989 on her own label, Floyd Records, named after her father. Patricia then began performing regularly at the Green Mill. During this time, in 1994 to be precise, Barber released her major label debut, Cafe Blue, which was a big success. She has since released several more albums and continues to play at the Green Mill when she's not on tour.
A friend of mine recently shared with me that when he and his wife went to the Gold Star Sardine Bar, anything went. One night, co-owner Bill Allen (of the Treasure Island chain) got up in his doctorate cap and gown and recited poetry in Latin. And although they didn't have a full kitchen, the Gold Star served fare like "medallions of beef fillets" and "Shrimp Gold Star" as part of "La Petite Menu." The bartenders would also serve White Castle sliders for peckish patrons "delivered twice daily" or so it was claimed. It's hard to top that for spontaneity. While the Gold Star Sardine Bar is gone, Deja Vu keeps the tradition alive by serving microwaved sliders if you ask.
"This probably doesn't fit, but did you know that for a couple of years in the late 80s, the Sheridan Classical Trio (I was the pianist, Jill Kaeding-Gailloreto played cello, Robert Hanford played violin at first, then Sheila Walter) used to play at the Gold Star at lunchtime, Monday, Wednesday and Friday? Yes, they served lunch, and I'll never forget Susan's chicken salad – although sometimes I gave in and ate a slider instead!"
– L.K. (October 10, 2002)
Cabaret rooms used to be popular in Chicago and all over the country. People used to enjoy listening to jazz divas along with the cool rhythms of the music itself. While Chicago has a plethora of excellent jazz clubs like Andy's, Jazz Showcase and the BackRoom (in addition to those listed above), there aren't many left that offer cabaret – particularly since the Toulouse Cognac Bar, Gentry and Jazz Bulls have also met their demise. However, Davenport's Piano Bar, Pops for Champagne and Green Dolphin Street often have cabaret-style performances, although not every night. The Gold Star Sardine Bar still stands on its own, just now in memory. Jazz, cocktails and sliders – what more could one want in a cocktail lounge?
"Thank you for writing about the Gold Star Sardine Bar. I was fortunate enough to have been there 10 years ago and absolutely loved it! I came back to Indianapolis raving about it and trying to figure out where to put one here. I am planning a trip to Chicago and was trying to see if it was still around. I appreciated knowing where we might go instead to find live jazz and torch music. Big fans of Diana Krall and all...that kind of thing. We will stop in some of your suggested places. I am just so disappointed though. That place was truly one of a kind. I still tell people about it to this day. Thanks for the article."
– K (October 22, 2002)
"I just found this story and boy did it feel good to read it. I used to go to the Gold Star Sardine Bar with a buddy of mine after we got off waiting tables at Arnie's on State. It was about 1987. I was hooked! Stephanie Browning was stunning!... and then she began to sing! I went back in every time I was in the area to see when she was performing. I took friends there, I took dates there. Then I got real busy with my career and missed a couple of months and when I returned... it was gone! It was 1997 and a sad year for local music fans... or so I thought. I knew I would always hold a place in my heart for the Gold Star and Ms. Browning. Then by coincidence I happened to be in the Peninsula one evening in 2004 for cocktails and when I got off the elevator the sound that was warming the entire lobby could only be one voice... holy shit! It was Stephanie Browning! I was happily surprised and she remembered me too! (or so she said, class act) Anyway, I've been back a couple times a month and it's such a treat to hear her, the chocolate buffet ain't bad either!"
– S.O. (July 18, 2005)
"I moved into the 'then known 666 North LSD' building well before all of the towers were completed and ready for occupancy. Bill Allen's Gold Star Sardine Bar and his Treasure Island grocery store were open for business at 666 N. LSD when the only occupants where in the South Tower, as I was. In fact there was absolutely NOTHING in that long corridor other than the easily missed, unmarked door to the Sardine Bar on the right as you entered the building. MUCH further down the corridor the doorman to the South Tower stood, and further from him was the entrance to Treasure Island on the left. I speak in such specifics because there was absolutely NOTHING other than the Sardine Bar, and a FEW residents in the only completed tower of this massive residential building. The news of Bill Allen's Gold Star Sardine Bar in the beginning was purely 'word of mouth.' In fact the only people that knew of the Sardine Bar where those that lived in the building. It was our little secret. Bill Allen was there almost every night. There was NEVER a line to get into the Sardine Bar. The ONLY food on the menu were White Castle Burgers. There were not silver cigarette boxes on the tables, however there were shot glasses with cigarettes in them. The artwork consisted of (for the most part) huge reproductions of the lyrics to Cole Porter's most famous songs... The original bar MAY have held 50 people, but I doubt it. Bill Allen didn`t care about how many people his jazz club could hold, all he cared about was listening to great live jazz, and if that meant he and a few of his friends would be the only people in the club... so be it. The ladies room was always IMMACULATE. I specifically remember the ever present stack of crisp linen hand towels. Patricia Barber owes her exposure to Bill Allen. I am sure she would say the same. She was an inexperienced wonder for one to be fortunate enough to hear in those early days. It is no surprise she has gone as far as she has. The original matchbooks for the Gold Star are a plain white matchbook... on one side it says, "Gold Star Cocktails 666 N Lake Shore Dr. 664-4215" and on the other side of the matchbook it says: 'Mingle with The Beautiful, The Famous and The Desirable'"
– L.Y. (February 17, 2005)