Booze Muse

The art and craft of liquid inspiration

Cal’s: A Love Story

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cal'scrosswalkBy Keralee Froebel

Cal’s, arguably the world’s best—or worst, depending on who’s speaking—dive bar, has closed, and not because of economic pressure, but because the owners, the brothers Cal and Fred Feirstein, are heading into their long-anticipated retirement.

Open since 1947 at the corner of Wells and Van Buren, Cal’s thrived simply because it refused to change with the times. Painted baby-shit brown on the inside, with band posters and playlists for wall art, the decor was virtually nonexistent, the bathrooms didn’t function and no matter how many times the bartender mopped the inside of the bar it managed to always look filthy. And yet, Cal’s was beloved by the chosen few who either found it quite by accident, or heard strange murmurings of its mythical existence. “Two dollar PBRs in a downtown bar?  Real punk music after dark downtown?  Cheap drinks with no attitude?  Lawyers, traders, UIC hipsters, bike messengers and postal workers drinking side by side?”

The actual existence of Cal’s was a dream come true for the class-smashing flaneur and urban adventurer.  Where else could one go to get such a particular and delicious reduction of urban society? Coming to Cal’s was like tasting a fine, long-simmering bouillabaisse: it took time and patience to cultivate the contrasting flavors that co-existed there, and it rarely got as real and flavorful as it used to get at Cal’s on a random weeknight happy hour. Read the rest of this entry »

A Sense of Decency: Moscow Mules and DIY Drinks at the Highball Lounge

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Photo: Philamonjaro

At first, walking up the stairs into the Highball Lounge is a little jarring—the shiny, clunky metal stairs are loud and modern, not what you would expect from a retro bar like this. But walking into the dimly lit bar, the atmosphere and music soothe the nerves. The walls and decor are fifties and sixties-inspired, and while they reach into the past, the bar is definitely in the present. It’s like a dream, a mixing of two eras, a surreal place to cut loose and not think about reality for a while.

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Cheers! A British bartender reviews Chicago’s English pubs

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English, an English pub, reviewed by an Englishman, in English

By Ben Small

Trends come and go, change and evolve, but one thing has always remained a constant: what makes an archetypal English pub English. The taste of a hand-pumped cask ale; the sense of age and history, that if the walls could talk, they’d certainly have a few tales to tell; the worn-down Persian carpets that have a musky smell after absorbing years of spilt beer; the polished wood surfaces and overhead exposed beams that provide the source of many bumped and bruised heads; the wholesome experience of pub fare; that comforting feeling that you’re relaxing in a stranger’s front room. “Pub” is an abbreviation of “public house,” and that explains the crucial tenet of what makes a pub a pub, to feel a comfortable belonging in a place that feels like a home. If that means there’s a pub dog nestling up against your legs or that there’s a roaring fire to keep you warm in the winter, then so be it. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Duke of Perth

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A disclaimer should be lodged before I begin discussing the Duke of Perth: It is a Scottish pub, and some may find it slightly audacious, maybe even a little offensive, that an English chap is making evaluations on intended Scottish cultural imitation. I am no expert on pubs in Scotland, although I have certainly frequented a few of the establishments north of the border. Regardless, the Duke of Perth has an aura akin to any given English pub, only with a much larger emphasis on men dressed in kilts and whisky.

The Duke of Perth really feels like it has been around a long time. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Elephant & Castle

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There is something about the dark brown hues of the Elephant & Castle at 185 North Wabash, one of three locations the chain inhabits in Chicago, that is distinctly off. Yes, they’ve got the aesthetic of an English pub spot on, but there is something ostensibly lacking in the pseudo-used floral carpets, stained-glass windows and exposed brickwork that looks like it goes back about an inch before reaching plaster. Perhaps it is harsh to judge a downtown pub for being inauthentic in its decor; the bottom floor of a skyscraper is hardly akin to a centuries-old countryside village home-cum-pub with a roaring fireplace and a ceiling that was built when the average height of the human race was a few inches shorter. Regardless, for the uninitiated, Elephant & Castle looks the part. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: English

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English, you say? There could not be a name for a pub that is quite so unashamedly barefaced about its intentions than one that simply names the nationality of its stylistic and inspirational forefathers. Sadly, however, this River North bar’s name is where the transatlantic connection abruptly concludes. There is absolutely nothing English about the English beyond the most banally contrived and token gestures.

For a start, the staff uniform designer seemed to miss the memo about the bar being inspirationally English. The Union Jack, the flag of the United Kingdom, not the St. George’s Cross of England, tarnishes the back of the shirts with the catchphrase “God save the cuisine” across the middle. This may be a slightly pedantic criticism—the Union Jack is certainly a more recognizable emblem than the white and red of the St. George’s Cross—yet it still comes across as rather amateur and poorly thought through.

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Review: The Globe

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The all-inclusive nature of The Globe’s universal name suggests that its ties to being an “English” pub are not entirely fixed. The pub rather sits on the fence about it, and is probably better known as a worldly American ‘soccer bar’ than an English ‘football pub.’ Yet, if overhearing middle-aged British expats discussing social policy from their mother country over a pint of their favorite ale while a classic late-nineties soccer match entrances the rest of the patrons is your thing, then this is the place for you.

The pub certainly hints to a transatlantic link: the specials sign is adorned with the name of an obscure Yorkshire brewer, there are innumerable scarves from all-manner of English soccer teams decorating the walls and the food menu features a token number of English pub-fare items  alongside a more American selection that can be found in any pub or bar on any street in any city in the U.S. The Globe does, however, know how to tease a cask-ale-loving Brit. Gracing the left-hand side of the bar were two unassuming hand-pumps, the kind that ejects that flat, slightly warmer, most delicious kind of beer that, back home, we call ‘real ale.’ Unfortunately, the black plastic on the front of the pump that is usually embellished with a medieval comic-book style drawing of swords and dragons is blank; the pumps are nothing but dead weight there to taunt me. I’ll give them a B for trying, though. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Owen and Engine

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“Real ales in the engine.” Those words were a sight for my sore eyes as I gazed across the menu at Owen and Engine on an early Saturday brunch. Hand-pumped, cellar-temperature real ales in an “English” bar in Chicago. My dreams had come true. Where The Globe teased, Owen and Engine delivered, with four cask ales to choose from, all served in the imperial measurement twenty-ounce glasses and at very reasonable prices. For the first time in three months I was able to enjoy the full taste of a beer without it having the icy cold prerequisite required to enjoy. The Lagunitas Maximus IPA and Arcadia Sky High Rye both took me right back to the countryside pubs of rural Kent. Owen and Engine had me won over immediately. However, the pub, which clearly draws a huge influence from English pubs, does not actually resemble anything like any pub I have experienced in England. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Tilted Kilt

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The surroundings and ambiance of the Tilted Kilt are largely irrelevant as the almost entirely male patronage of this classy joint on Jewelers Row in the Loop have their eyes fixed on one of two things: the buxom waitresses that bound around the bar with all and sundry on show as part of their tartan-sprawled, underwear-based uniform or one of the countless televisions that occupy every corner of the expansive bar showing the latest sporting fixture. The relative authenticity of the intended Scottish nature of the bar is unlikely to occur to them as they chug down their bottles of Miller Lite. For what it’s worth, this is an American sports bar with Hooters-style objectification of women that are dressed in an American man’s idea of what a sexy Scottish woman probably looks like. Read the rest of this entry »

411: Paddy O’Fegan’s Opens, and Isn’t It Always News When an Irish Pub Opens in Chicago?

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Patrick Fegan (Paddy) and his team of chefs and bartenders are a bunch of characters, the type of people who always seem to have a few jokes in the chamber and a flattering interest in the people they encounter. They are also an ambitious lot, as they prepare for their August 15 opening of Paddy O’Fegan’s, the Fulton Market District’s newest Irish, Canadian, and American (Camerish?) neighborhood pub.

When you first walk into the pub, you will be greeted by Chef Jack Austin’s river rock mosaic floor, which reads “Céad Mile Fáilte,” Gaelic for 100,000 welcomes. Read the rest of this entry »