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UPTOWN CHICAGO COMMISSION

Uptown in the News  

August 1, 2003
Chicago READER
An Uptown Bar Owner Feeds Her Flock
By Ann Sterzinger


Big Chicks at Argyle and Sheridan---a refurbished art deco storefront where a sign behind the vintage bar gives a definition of the German word gemutlichkeit ("an agreeable, cheerful, cozy feeling; a sense of well being")---looks like a house party that moved into an art gallery. The woodwork's painted in sultry hues, thick curtains cover the windows, and paintings and photos by Chicago artists are crammed mosaic-style onto the walls. Michelle Fire, the bar's owner since 1986, was supposedly the model for the life-size painted cutout of a towering, corseted drag queen that greets drinkers at the door with a glowing globe of the earth balanced above her head on one formal-lengthed glove.

A deadpan Fire claims credit for the gentrification of north Uptown. When she bought, renamed, and redecorated the tavern, built in 1944, the neighborhood was "so scary I ran from my car to the bar."

Gentrification may be too strong a word to use just yet. Proximity to public transit and the lakeshore make the area attractive to young people whose education and/or artistic ambition dwarf their incomes. You can still pay somewhat humane rent in Uptown, watch police tape flap around the occasional murder scene, and eat greasy-chopstick Vietnamese. But coffee shops and cutesy Thai joints are moving in; a couple of storefronts south of Big Chicks, Riques has opened to serve cheap but elegant regional Mexican to a lunch and late-dinner crowd. And now Fire's getting in on the morning-after food business---in May, she opened the space next door to her bar as a weekend-only breakfast joint called Tweet! Let's Eat.

She invited the living artists represented at Tweet to contribute their favorite breakfast recipes to the menu. You can have photographer Robert Steigler's buckwheat pancakes plus a side for $6; for $3.50 you can savor Bob Thall's morning repast, a cup of black coffee and a multipack of vitamins. The food shares the nightclub's spirit of wholesome debauchery: it's diner stuff, mostly eggs, stacks, and steaks, but made with a reasonable amount of grease and as many organic ingredients as possible. Whenever she can she gets eggs from an Amish farmers collective in Minnesota. The Amish also provide pastured pork and salad-bar beef: both terms mean the animals munched plants in pastures, not grain from troughs. When made with all-natural spuds, the hash browns seem extra fluffy.

At the end of June, Big Chicks began using the kitchen too, turning out "very upscale bar food" that includes appetizers like quesadillas and fried veggies; $9 salads full of goodies like goat cheese; and chicken sandwiches and burgers. Bar grub's available 5 to 11 PM Monday through Thursday. On Fridays, the food service begins at 5 but then cuts off at 9 for the weekend, as patrons need space to dance; one recent Sunday around 7:30, there was a half-block-long line to get in.

Business at Tweet has been brisk enough that Fire recently expanded the hours there a bit: it's now open 8 to 2 Saturday, 8 to 3 Sunday. Between breakfast profits and the drinks she selling to the folks packing Big Chicks' dance floor at night, she hopes to keep up with the neighborhood she's helped along: "My rent's going up too!"

Tweet! Let's Eat is at 5020 N. Sheridan, 773-728-5576.


To view the entire article for a fee, please visit the Chicago READER website at www.chireader.com


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