2956 N. Albany Ave. (3000N, 3100W)
Chicago, IL 60618
On the fringes of a neighborhood you rarely hear of, unless you're a hardcore Chicagoan or adventurous pub enthusiast, is the second installment of the Small Bar story. You'll find all the beers, pub grub and Bohemian-friendly ambiance combined with its own unique Avondale flavor, including a menu topping 100 beers, a pleasant beer garden and classic neighborhood tavern architecture. Though surly bartenders and less-than-ventilated confines on colder days can but the kibosh on a good time for some, those that simply drank more, faster are sure to fall in love with the place.
Small Bar lies almost hidden in the back of beyond at the corner of Albany and Wellington, just north of Logan Boulevard and just south of where Albany hits the Kennedy Expressway. The bar sits within the base of a dark brown brick two-flat, with tiny windows filled with neon set within a brick façade set upon stone. Back in the day, you'd pull open the thick wooden door and, if you weren't from the neighborhood, you'd get suspicious glances at best and perhaps overt hostility at worst. Today at Small Bar, you'll find a scruffy, artsy crowd that looks like they were heading to Ukie Village but lost their way. These savvy pub-goers instead have led the way to a cheap and plentiful bounty of brew and nosh.
Wooden floors match the bar that runs most of the way down the southern wall and terminates in an open-air grill that serves as the kitchen. Old-fashioned light fixtures hang from a gold-painted tin ceiling that match the walls painted a burnt yellow and an impressive array of lava lamps stand in front of a window of glass blocks high up in the northern wall. The impressive wooden back bar was resurrected from the building kitty corner to Small Bar, which is now a residence. Grab a seat at one of the high-backed wooden barstools, or at one of the smattering of cocktail tables.
A large chalkboard hanging above the jukebox on the eastern wall, complimented by small table top displays, illustrate the dozen or so beers on tap and 90+ in bottles, putting them close to that mythical hops & barley plane of existence currently inhabited by Quenchers, Hopleaf and Map Room. Small Bar was the first place I saw that had Kalamazoo Royal Amber on tap and I did my best to drink the Bells Brewery back into business in Chicago (everyone has to do their part), though I have to admit that I ponied up for the $15 40-ounce He'Brew Origin Pomegranate Ale – I should have just stuck with the Kalamazoo [tear].
As for the menu, Small Bar features a good selection of pub grub, consisting mainly of $10 sandwiches and salads, and some notable appetizers like hand-dipped cheese curds that are enough to make you fantasize about the Brat Stop. On my last visit, I had the fried buffalo chicken sandwich with tater tots, and my friend had a burger with Swiss – both were good, but not exceptional. Small Bar-ites also like the wasabi-spiced calamari, the $1 mini-burgers on Tuesdays and $0.50 wings on Thursdays. Service tends to be hit or miss and largely dependent on the mood of the bartender(s) that day.
The restrooms are in the western wall and the men's has a urinal and a toilet, and a locking door, leaving the inevitable yet unenviable question: do I leave the door unlocked so someone who really needs to go, can, or will the other guy get the wrong idea as I stand with my Johnson fully exposed? Sadly, no reasonable answer has emerged. A door in the southwestern corner leads out to a nice and surprisingly spacious, fenced-in, tree-lined beer garden lit with small lanterns and heated on cold nights. The place is cozy and warm enough in winter, though many claim that a lack of ventilation will end up causing you to smell like a tater tot yourself...
Phil McFarland and Ty Fujimura are the same chaps that brought you Lava Lounge, now Lava on Milwaukee, and also feature another Small Bar location in Wicker Park on Division, next to InnJoy. For the record, the Avondale location of Small Bar is not really that small, but rather the same size as numerous classic Chicago taverns like Gannon's Pub, Vaughan's Pub (Sheffield) and Village Tap. Though we are loathe to promote drinking and driving, getting to Small Bar by car is your best bet unless you live in the neighborhood as it's unlikely to find a cab nearby and public transportation isn't accessible unless you want to risk a midnight Avondale bus excursion. Fortunately, street parking is plentiful.
At the end of the day, Small Bar has quickly established itself as one of the best neighborhood bars of Avondale amongst younger residents, along with Chief O'Neill's on the other side of the Kennedy, though you have to wonder where all the blue collar types that used to frequent the joint have gone. Rumor has it that they occasionally feature a small band on weekends, so give them a call if you're up for that. If you like Small Bar in Avondale, you'll also like their original location on Division and their third location on Fullerton. Otherwise, for more information, check out the Small Bar website.