Think of the Northside Bar & Grill as kind of like a Wicker Park cross between Lincoln Park's Kincade's and Tilli's. This polished saloon draws all the pretty people of this trendy Chicago neighborhood, and those that prey on them that don't happen to be across the street at Cans. All flock here during the summer for slightly upscale pub grab and what can easily be considered one of Wicker Park's best beer gardens, even though they've dispensed with the bocce ball court (don't worry, there's still Cody's).
Located near the corner of Concord and Damen, the Northside has been an unmistakable presence since 1989, back when the owner, Cyril Landise, had to hire security guards to keep out the prostitutes and drug dealers don't worry, they've all moved out to the western suburbs these days... Not to be confused with the bar of the same name, formerly located at 939 W. Webster in Lincoln Park, the Northside is housed in the base of a brown, two-story brick building. A black awning with white lettering hangs under a modest wooden sign of the same ilk. Both welcome you to this tasteful saloon, but only after successfully navigating past the doorman. Perched just inside the door is a hostess stand next to two cocktail tables in front of windows overlooking Damen Avenue. A long wooden bar runs along the south side of the main bar area, across from a few more cocktail tables. Artwork from local artists adorns exposed brick walls, in-between eight televisions subtly showing ESPN at all times. A narrow aisle covered in drab, multicolored linoleum leads to the back where the bathrooms, kitchen and back room are located. The back room offers a Golden Tee machine, more tables and seating at a long black leather banquette overlooking two pool tables. A large wooden sign with "LIFESAVER" written in black letters carved into it hangs on one of the walls prompting the question, why?
For those feeling a bit peckish, a large dining room with stone flooring and additional exposed brick walls with ivy growing from them lies beyond two large plate glass doors. Here, patrons sit at a bevy of plastic tables and chairs while "BEER" written in large, red plastic letters mounted on white trellis subliminally suggests a choice of beverage. In colder months, a fireplace with chain facing at the south end of the room warms the east end of the room while heatlamps warm the west end. In summer, the doors open out and the glassed-in, greenhouse-like dining room becomes part of a large beer garden that stretches all the way to the street. Additional, much sought-after sidewalk café seating lies in front of Northside's main entrance, enclosed by black-painted, wrought iron railings. In recognition of its popular outdoor patio, the Northside was one of three Best Nominees for Best Outdoor Bar in Citysearch: Chicago's annual poll. Wherever seated, you're sure to enjoy a sampling of Northside specialties that includes calamari, hummus, salads, BBQ chicken sandwiches, half-pound burgers, turkey burgers, New York strip steak, ribs, grilled catfish, linguini al fresco, and a variety of desserts most notably the "ruggeleh" (cinnamon pastry with raisins rolled into a buttery crust served on a pool of caramel sauce with a dollop of whipped cream). All this is served until 2:00am on weekends. While many like the food, the service can be spotty no matter how many Northside family and friends rave about "cute, skinny, hilarious waitresses" on the local review boards. Anyway, once you've made the difficult decision of what to eat, now what to drink? The Northside offers a few dozen beers, along with several frozen Margarita flavors, namely: blue, lime, banana, mango, peach, raspberry, strawberry, strawberry blonde, and watermelon. While excelling in variety, the Northside got dinged in a review by the "Margarita Girls" six girls," CPAs and teachers by day, margarita fans by night" on Metromix. Northside's Margarita's received a "1" out of 4 (lowest score, equivalent to "I should have stayed home and had a Schlitz") for flavor and buzz factor (strength), and a "2" ("Average; I'll go on a Tuesday if he pays") for size and service by these self-proclaimed "fashionistas." The conclusion: if you're in the mood for Margaritas and can't be dissuaded, head over to Goodbar instead. Even though the Northside might not be the optimal choice for that frozen concoction that helps you hang on, Zagat's annual Chicago restaurant survey in 2006/7 rated the Northside as having good food, décor and service, with an average meal costing you about $17. Zagat's went on to note that the Northside offers, "prime people-watching" and "incredible Bloody Marys" during weekend brunch (along with something intriguingly known as the "Cajun Bayou Breakfast"). The Margarita Girls also rated the Northside as a "4" (top rating) for "eye candy."
Prior to my last visit, I had only been to the Northside once before in a drunken blur. This time, I arrived via a cab whose driver liked to give rides with his window open in the middle of January, once again prompting the question, why? This is especially curious to me as it has happened several times in recent winters when it has even been colder. Following my chilly ride, I sat in the main bar, bored, waiting for a friend and pounding Budweisers to pass the time. As I sat there, I observed a flurry of black leather jackets and other GAP apparel, along with a poseur in a white shirt with open collar and brown suede leather jacket presenting himself in the middle of the front room as girls passed by. To top it off, he screamed "Joey!" when his friend walked in. Once my friend finally showed up, I proceeded to get spanked (22 over par) at Golden Tee in heated one-to-one competition with someone that had never played the game before. Rather embarrassing. I consoled myself with the memory of once winning a Golden Tee skins competition thanks to a single, skillfully played hole. Several skins had carried over, and I won $24,000 by winning that hole alone. That was enough to win the game, even though I had only earned three skins previously and the leader had won three times as many. Good times.
"Like a bike with training wheels still on for Wicker Park rookies. Straightforward and easy, it's also a comfortable spot regardless of season."
The Official Chicago Bar Guide (2001)
Being restaurant by day and bar by night, although they have a late-night menu as indicated by the little hatless cowboy on the saddle just inside the entrance, the Northside is a good bet anytime of day. You can bask in the sunlight, assuage your hunger, have a few drinks and press on to more adventurous activities at Nick's Beergarden, Pint, Blue Line Club Car, or a night on the couch. On the other hand, some find the Northside a little less than palpable. I submit the following quote for your consideration: "One of the worst bars in this area abounding with bad bars, Northside is an unfriendly, uncomfortable, over-priced, ugly place. The only tolerable room is the outdoor quasi-beer garden, where if you're fortunate you can isolate your group from the yuppie-trixie-princesses-jerkoffs that inhabit the bar like a walking plague." So notes Adam Payne, contributing writer for what is usually a benign Centerstage Chicago. While many love the Northside and consider it a neighborhood institution, others rue the day yuppies descended upon the area. These former patrons would rather swallow lint than put up with the crushing pretension they perceive at the Northside and head to nearby Silver Cloud instead. What will you find? If you like the Northside, you'll probably like its bohemian cousin in Humboldt Park, the Black Beetle, also owned by Landise. For more information, check out the Northside Bar & Grill website. Cha-cha-cha.
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Photo courtesy of Carl Stumpf