Editor's note: Gramercy went to that big pretentious club in the sky in 2008 and has been replaced by Soirée Bar Lounge.
Few places in Chicago have exuded such open rancor as when the pristine Gramercy opened up where the legendary Lounge Ax once stood. It's been a few years since then and, while the black leather-jacketed Lincoln Park throng has embraced Gramercy with open arms and open legs, musos and indy types rue the day Lounge Ax succumbed to hostile neighbors and a strangely sympathetic city. Regardless, the bar named after the famous park in New York City is one of the first bar-club hybrids that has since been imitated throughout the North Side, though not in the same "South Beach" style. Zella, eat your heart out.
The Gramercy can be found within the Wrightwood neighbors section of Lincoln Park, located at the base of a red-brick building between such neighbors as Lincoln Station and the Red Lion Pub. In faux-modest style, a small silver plate that hangs in the front window with its sheer drapes is the only advertising to catch the overflow traffic from Bordo's up the street. A plate glass door is opened to reveal not one but two bouncers clad in black from head to toe. Step through more sheer curtains draping the entrance and you'll find a narrow room with dark hardwood flooring, a white-painted ceiling with recessed lighting, a giant Times New Roman raised "g" in the south wall, and endless, mindless "Euro" dance music. Running down the southern wall is a long bar that is bookended by large potted plants, consists of a mirrored base and has a waterfall behind it with water that continuously cascades down a metal-plated backdrop (if the bar is still around in a year or two, I'd hate to see the bill for scraping the inevitable rust off). Here you can order bottled beer, $8 martinis, red and white wine, and a few varieties of champagne.
Across from the bar are two white vinyl banquettes with tables topped with a plate of glass over a white tablecloth. Here, small parties can be found consuming delicacies from an abbreviated menu. Such fare includes $7 separate cheese and fruit plate appetizers and $9, tapas-ported basics such as beef tenderloin, chicken breast, pork chop, shrimp cocktail, spinach ravioli, and tuna steak. The portions are generally big enough for those ordering, as the crowd is more concerned with fitting into hip-hugger jeans and tight black t-shirts then assuaging their appetite (at least for food). If you have real hunger, head to bw-3 up the block for some wings beforehand.
Beyond the booths and bar is the DJ stand, a long, high-backed, white leather couch, and two additional U-shaped booths found against the mirrored back and side walls that can accommodate very large groups. Access to the men's bathroom can be had back through the northern wall and the women's restroom, the real story at Gramercy, is accessible through the open door across from the end of the bar and down the red-painted stairs adorned with plants and flowers. Here, the ladies will be pleasantly surprised to find one of the best women's bathrooms in Chicago. On the lower level, the fairer sex will find more white vinyl booths, a stone floor, and additional sheer drapery leading to minimalist gray stalls and a series of fancy steel sinks that would make the execs at Kohler jealous. Not only will a Lincoln Park Trixie feel like a queen, but she'll have a comfortable spot to chat about the night's "opportunities" with her girlfriends.
As should come as no surprise, the crowd at the Gramercy has as much warmth as a Siberian cooter. Raised noses and contemptuous over-the-shoulder dismissals are par for the course. This Chicago-Scene favorite is filled with more dyed blonde hair, silicone, black leather jackets, make-up (on males and females alike), untucked dress shirts, men with women half their age, and Andersen castoffs than you can shake a martini glass at. As part of a visit during the Taste of Lincoln Avenue in its inaugural year, when they had a small astroturf display with arrows taped on it with masking tape pointing towards the door with potted plants to boot, a group of friends and myself decided to check out this new entity. Once inside, we couldn't even bring ourselves to order a drink. We decided that having a leak was the best experience we could have had at the Gramercy. As we left, we overheard a random, Lincoln Park bar-hopper walk by and say, unprompted, "This place sucks," followed by his friend: "I'd like to take a dump in there." On the other hand, the Tilly's, Bar 3 and Bordo's crowd will be tickled pink that they now have another option that more closely matches their personality instead of the dingy grunge of its predecessor.
"Our philosophy is simple - we're not pretentious enough to have one. we're inclusive - not exclusive. sure, we appreciate fine design and high atmosphere, but the only attitude you'll find at the gramercy is our determination to please our customers. we look forward to having you as our guest." So reads the statement on the Gramercy website – wow, they're so laid-back, they don't even use capital letters! Isn't stating that you don't have a philosophy, never mind about the exclusive/inclusive bit, evidence of a well thought through and defined philosophy? Also, "high atmosphere?" Hmm...
Overall, the Gramercy is a triumph of aesthetics over atmosphere ala Dublin's Bailey. The character and appeal of Lounge Ax is gone and has been replaced with a hipper-than-thou atmosphere that makes Durkin's, Matisse, Sopo and any club in River North feel laid-back and friendly. Though it promotes itself as a restaurant, it has the menu the size of the martini list at Crabbby Kim's Bikini Bar. For me, it's a a sad state of affairs considering what the bar used to be but I do recognize its appeal to the clubbing crowd and that's fair enough. At least there's never a cover or dress code, and it does stand out from the frat-ish establishments located a little further south. Meet me over at JT Collins afterwards.