Editor's note: Now Kirkwood Bar & Grill, Pops for Champagne closed down the day after Bastille Day 2006, and has re-opened at 601 N. State Street in River North.
"Where Chicago celebrates!"
Perhaps equally impressive to the classic, sophisticated ambience of Pops for Champagne is that it is not located in River North, the Gold Coast or even Lincoln Park. Here, in Lakeview, Pops is located along a leafy stretch of Sheffield Avenue and draws those from around the city, suburbs and for those visiting Chicago who wish to celebrate or impress the bejesus out of a date. Though expectations are high, Pops for Champagne delivers with a phenomenal selection of champagne and some of the best jazz vocalists, duos, trios, and quartets around to rival that of Chicago legends like the Green Mill, Jazz Showcase and Andy's.
Sunken Bars and Bubbly Gardens
Pops for Champagne is located next to Star Bar at the corner of Sheffield and Oakdale, just north of Vaughan's and south of Matilda. This jazz oasis looks as though it's located in an annexed part of a three-story brownstone. The entrance lies under a humble wooden sign and red- and navy blue-striped awning. Step through the door and you'll find a short hallway bedecked with huge Taittinger posters, which you'll rapidly find out sponsors many of the promotions at Pops. You'll find the hostess to your right and, as if the prospect of a night filled with champagne isn't expensive enough for you, you'll be happy to fork over the $10 cover charge on Fridays and Saturdays, and $6 every other night (payable as an item on your bill). Thankfully, Sundays are free. The best seating for couples within Pops' dimly-lit confines is in the intimate, carpeted seating area with its nicely polished wooden tables. Here you can enjoy the wood-burning fireplace when the weather is cold, as well as the view through floor-to-ceiling glass windows that overlook Sheffield where you can reminisce at what used to be Classic Desserts across the street. Larger groups will find the plush booths that run along the north wall, under the blue sky mural, your best bet. For those "waiting" for someone special, there's a smattering of stools across the marble aisle at the sunken bar with its Tiffany-styled lamps and white shirt-and tie-wearing bartenders that look like midgets as only their upper torsos and heads are visible. There are also tables at the end of the room in front of large glass windows overlooking the European-style bubbly garden, complete with its brick pavement, ivy, flowers, and white wooden trellis.
Christopher Walken's "Fine Sham-pag-na"
Once seated, you'll have the opportunity to pour through the many-paged, maroon, leather-bound menu of drinks, light appetizers and desserts. My advice: unless you're a bona-fide aficionado, ask the waiter for recommendations. They'll gladly teach you all about Brut, Milanese and Taittinger champagnes. Overall, there are 120 world-class champagnes to choose from, ranging in price from $36 to $400 a bottle and $8 to $33 a glass. Even the coasters feature a quote from Dom Perignon: "When I'm drinking champagne, I'm drinking stars." In addition to champagne, Pops offers a nice selection of sparkling, red and white wine, cognac, single malt Scotch, port, Armagnac, calvado, sherry, cordials, and the bartenders can mix up a mean martini to boot. In addition, the bar's signature summer cocktail, known as the "Celestial Fizz," which is a combination of cognac, Grand Marnier and champagne. All this fizziness goes well with an order of beluga caviar, brie, fondue, a fruit plate, cheesecake, or creme brulee and a cigar afterwards. However, cigar smokers beware: the drinks menu states that the staff may request that you put it out if other guests become offended. In this day and age, be glad if you get halfway through your stogie.
"Pops has an extensive list of champagnes ranging from normal, human price to out of touch with reality outrageous."
– Shecky's Bar, Club & Lounge Guide 2002
Groovy, Groovy, Jazzy, Funky
Dark, multi-colored drapes lie behind the elevated stage and black grand piano behind the bar. Here, a revolving rotation of some of the best musicians in the area entertain patrons eager to compliment their evening with some cool jazz. Recent performances include those by Von Freeman, Los Hombres Perdidos, Russell Allen Rowe Trio, Franz Jackson, Gephart Long Quartet, Greg Fishman Duo, Bobby Lewis, Alison Ruble, Judy Roberts, Steve Million, and Corky McClerkin (a name that just rolls right off your tongue). The jazz starts at 8:30 p.m. each night, except for 6:00 p.m. on Fridays (with a second show at 9:00 p.m.), and 9:00 p.m. on Saturdays. On your way out, make sure you pick up a monthly listing of upcoming acts at the door (brought to you by Taittinger).
Giggly with Cuvée
If that weren't enough, the vaulted ceiling at Pops gives the band an incredible sound. Unfortunately, the sound on one visit, while enjoyable, was rather brief as the musicians took a 10-minute break after playing for only 10 minutes – three times. On the other hand, the evening was fantastic as my date and I splurged and shared a bottle of Cuvée Josephine by Joseph Perrier, served wrapped in white cloth and placed in waist-high, clear plastic cisterns filled with ice. Previously, I had never had a bottle that was even one-tenth the price of this bottled gold. It was the perfect follow up to a dinner in the window at Jane's in Bucktown (across from the Bucktown Pub). This champagne was suggested to us by our patron-turned-waiter who was once given a bottle of it for free by the owner, in gratitude for his patronage. The Cuvée Josephine, like all other fine champagnes, tastes somewhat like green apples. Cheaper champagnes do not offer nearly the same flavor, and any "champagne" made from grapes grown outside the Champagne region of France is called "sparkling wine" instead. We enjoyed our champagne as a 35 to 40 year-old couple had a make-out session in front of us to a jazz cover of "Light My Fire." Marvelous. Afterwards, I realized how subtly the champagne had gotten to my head. Before we left, I impatiently asked the waiter why he hadn't brought my credit card slip to sign and he politely informed me that I hadn't given him my credit card yet. I deftly followed this gaff by adding the tip on the signature line, tripping on my way out, giggling like a schoolgirl, and mistakenly attempting to take a cab in the wrong direction of my home. Class with a capital "K." Damn those little bubbles!
Overall, Pops for Champagne is like a polished, well-mannered and, at times, equally lecherous version of Nick's Uptown. While this may not be the most flattering description, just keep your eye on the lone suits at the bar waiting for high-maintenance one-nighters. Alternately, it's mostly couples looking for a high-priced night on the town in a romantic setting, particularly on Valentine's Day, New Year's Eve, birthdays, anniversaries, and even for wedding receptions. While they tend to be older, Pops is also a great place for younger couples as the waiters serve without much pretension, as long as you're wearing "dressy but casual" attire. Younger single types tend to stick with Star Bar next door, which used to be the original location of Pops and that now offers the same menu of drinks, sans cover charge, along with televisions, beer and the occasional lingerie contest.
Pops for Champagne easily has the largest selection of bubbly in the Midwest, and it has been so since the bar opened in March 1982 when owner Tom Verhey hired Chicago architect John Nelson to convert what was a grocery store into a champagne bar featuring 13 champagnes and a limited bar menu. The idea came to him after visiting Reiss' Champagne Bar in Vienna while working as a salesman for Bell & Howell. In August 1986, the property next door was acquired and transformed into a jazz club, again designed by Nelson, while the original space was converted into Star Bar. All of the above is particularly impressive considering that the neighborhood was rough and gang-ridden back then, and Pops for Champagne has certainly had a transformative effect on the neighborhood, much as Dave Jemilo's Green Mill did for Uptown around the same time.
Since Pops for Champagne opened, many piano bars and cabarets like the Gold Star Sardine Bar have come and gone, but Pops endures. Head there once and there will be no mistaking why, especially if you drop by during their popular Bastille Day Street Festival, one of the best in the city. While others like the BackRoom, Green Dolphin Street and Jilly's try, Pops stands out for its touch of class in champagne, atmosphere and service. For more information, check out the Pops for Champagne website. See you at the bar, dah-ling...