Editor's Note: (773) 862-PURR no longer rings at the Leopard Lounge as one of my favorite Chicago lounges has been replaced by Cortland's Garage from the lads behind Goodbar. Change is indeed painful.
"For cats on the prowl"
Although Bucktown is peppered with swanky places like the Holiday Club, Get Me High Lounge, and Danny's Tavern, the Leopard Lounge outdoes them all. I have not found a bar anywhere in Chicago that continually attracts better looking women than at the Leopard. Not only that, but I have found the crowd at the Leopard is quite unpretentious and flirtatious, with a slight overtone of indecent proposals and perversion in the air. With leopard-skin barstools, chairs and couches, as well as tasteful pin-ups of yesteryear models adorning the exposed brick walls, the decor of the Leopard Lounge matches the patron's intent.
The Leopard Lounge is located on Cortland Street, immediately west of where Ashland runs under the Kennedy, just before Hermitage. If you're coming from the east before Clybourn, head down Cortland at night, and you will pass through a narrow, scenic, brightly lit passage called the North River Industrial Corridor, just east of the Chicago River where A. Finkl & Sons is located. Whichever way you're coming, once you're near the Kennedy, look for the small red brick building with a sign depicting a '50s-era sex pot Bettie Page look-alike, wearing an orange leopard-skin outfit over the door, and here you are.
The Leopard takes its clientele very seriously, and thus you have to be at least 23 to get in. Younger? Head over to nearby Lemming's or Subterranean instead. As you walk in, past the bouncer, there is a long, worn wooden bar on your left preserved from the 1950s. The bar is nicely framed with green lights and circular fish tanks, with bright blue backgrounds and tiger fish. There is one TV at the end of the bar, but I have never seen it turned on. Bottled beer is stored in old-fashioned, waist-high wooden coolers with metal latches and a variety of martinis is available. A narrow hardwood aisle separates the bar area from low-rider tables and leopard-skin chairs along the side wall. Limited seating is also available against the front windows, which open out on warm days. Most people either sit at the bar or at one of the tables, so that they can scope out incoming talent as the aisle turns into a runway. If you're leery about being openly sized up, head over to the Bucktown Pub down the street.
Additional seating is located in the back of the front room. The place to be is in one of the funky leopard-skin armchairs in front of the fireplace topped with a sexy picture of a nude, or in one of the leopard-skin couches just opposite. Blue-green string lights round out the main room's decor, which are replaced by the red variety around Valentine's Day. Jazz can be heard in the background, and live on Tuesdays for no cover charge. The Leopard also offers a canopied beer garden (open all year round) with wooden tables and surrounded interestingly by a chain link fence. "Screened in," is how they describe it. A hardwood-floored hallway, opposite the beer garden on the west side of the bar, leads to the bathrooms (two for the women and one for the men).
The crowd consists primarily of trendy types, aged 25-40. Everyone is dressed to kill, so leave the jeans and the baseball hat at home, chief. On a recent visit, the bartender even wore a leather skirt and looked damn fine in it. People you see in the Leopard Lounge tend to be city types that know the really good places to go, and where they can avoid college and suburban crowds. Those sensitive to smoke may want to steer clear, as the Leopard is one of the last lounges to still offer cigars, the smoke from which may hang in the air under the slatted wooden ceiling.
The Leopard Lounge is a far cry from the linoleum-clad, "beer joint and men's club" that preceded it. The bar is now owned by Ursula Sanchez, whose mother Awilda used to be a Bunny at the Chicago Playboy Club from 1973 to 1979. Apparently, style and sexuality runs deep in the family. My recommendation: if you're attached, come to the Leopard Lounge with your date during the week for drinks before you head next door to Jane's or to nearby Club Lucky on Wabansia. If you're single and willing, head to the Leopard after 11:00 p.m. on Friday or Saturday. For its noble efforts in debauchery, the Leopard Lounge was one of five bars nominated for Best Singles Scene in 2000 by Metromix, and was voted into the "Audience Top 10," as well as one of thee Editorial Nominees for Best Singles Scene in 2001 by Citysearch: Chicago. And, for those of you international men (and women) of mystery, another Leopard Lounge can be found in London under different ownership. Swing, baby yeah!
"The purrfect place to drink"
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