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Active Cultures: pedal power pushes the Handlebar

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Josh Deth was working as a brewer at Goose Island a few years ago when he and some friends started scouting the city for a place to open their own brew pub--a "lefty, political" kind of place to be called the Revolution Brewing Company. He had experience in the business at the now defunct Golden Prairie microbrewery on Elston as well as Goose Island, and even went ahead and bought some scrap equipment. The plan nearly came to fruition three times, but in the end every deal fell through. "The emotional up and down, it kind of wears on you," he says.

Deth, who's 28, went on to work as a public policy researcher for the Chicago Rehab Network, and in 2001 he started graduate work in urban planning at UIC. But then, early last fall, he saw a message from a friend, John Greenfield, on a local listserv run by members of the bike advocacy movement Critical Mass. Greenfield thought it would be cool to open a restaurant catering to bicyclists, and he had a name--the Handlebar--picked out already. He just needed some partners. Deth bit.

Deth has been an avid cyclist and activist for years; he and a group of others started the monthly Critical Mass rides from Daley Plaza about five years ago. He'd never considered combining his passion for cycling with his restaurant dream before, but the idea clicked immediately. "When you're doing something like this," he says, "you gotta go with your gut, go with what feels right."

Greenfield soon dropped out of the project, but Deth was off and running, signing on his friends and Critical Mass associates Todd Gee and Karen Furlong as co-owners. None of them has experience running a restaurant, so the venture is something of a shot in the dark. But they have one big advantage: the support of their fellow cyclists.

"We had ten people in painting last week," Deth says. "Some people are going to be working here, some people are investing money to make it happen. We're getting some bicycle furniture from [Blackstone Bicycle Works director] Andy Gregg....He's making us some bar stools out of old recycled chrome steel rims. It has been a very nice kind of community effort."

The restaurant's space was previously occupied by La Cumbamba, a Colombian restaurant known for its cozy atmosphere and eccentric proprietor. The new owners have made some cosmetic changes, refinishing the bar and painting the walls, but they've kept the tile mosaics installed by La Cumbamba owner William Restrepo. A basement lounge outfitted with couches and a long coffee table is intended to serve as a meeting place for the bike community. The owners are brainstorming the cyclist-friendly amenities to come, such as storage for helmets and gear. "Preschool cubbyholes would be best," says Deth.

The Handlebar should be open for dinner and weekend brunch by the end of the month. The menu isn't set yet, but Deth and crew are planning to serve "loosely vegetarian" food, with most entrees priced under $10. They'll also have a full bar and someday (they hope) a beer garden. This weekend, the restaurant will give potential customers a preview when it hosts the sixth annual Critical Mass/Bike Winter Art Show, featuring 100 or so pieces of bike-themed sculpture, photography, and painting.

"The motorcycle enthusiasts ostensibly have the Twisted Spoke, and that's kind of their niche," says Gee. "But we as bicycle freaks don't have a home base. With Handlebar, the community will have a place to call home."

The Handlebar is at 2311 W. North; the art show opens Saturday, February 15, at 8 PM with a free reception featuring hors d'oeuvres, drinks, and live music by Greenfield, Amber Drea, Janet Kim, and John Hasbrouke. The show runs through March 2, and bike parking is available. Call 773-384-9546 for more information.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Drea.

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