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An Uptown Bar Owner Feeds Her Flock

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If you want to troll a depressing gay bar, head to Andersonville, where video screens showing blurry, joyless porn are a dime a dozen and neon beer signs featuring the gay rainbow hang against acres of black-painted plywood. The boy bins on Halsted near Belmont are less inviting still, with their polished brass and genteel prices. But 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. There's no dearth of spunk-shooting beefcake on the monitors, but you can also catch an episode of Ab Fab. 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-length 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." Big Chicks brought a new kind of nocturnal foot traffic to the block; Fire says she stood in front of the bar every night, "watching everything that was going on and making sure people got here OK."

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, and there are lots of well-established first- and second-generation Americans about, business owners or taxi drivers who own their apartments. There are also several halfway houses. 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 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.

Tweet, like Big Chicks, swarms with clever visual details (a sign on the girls' loo says, "Usage limite a cinq minutes--lecture toleree"), going tastefully easy on the birdie theme. It too shrouds its windows with full-length curtains, but sheer ones that filter a bit of the day onto lighter-colored walls and a display of more stately local art, all owned by Fire. "Some are internationally known artists, some are locally known, others are unknown," she says.

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. "Real farms run seasonally," says Fire, so sometimes factory food must do. But 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.

Although adding another business has made her life hectic, Fire says it's fun running Tweet--she found time one morning to don huge rhinestone earrings before diving into kitchen operations. However, "it is not, by far, a vanity operation--it must and will pay for itself and all the staffing and cost that go with it." By September, with chef Janice Martin in charge of the menu, she hopes to be opening Tweet for dinner.

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's 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.

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

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