One recent afternoon Michael Roper, proprietor and barman at Andersonville beer bar the Hopleaf, was entertaining a question that has troubled the belly of many a Chicago nighthawk: How is it that a first-rate city with world-class culinary aspirations can be so second-rate when it comes to late-night grub? "Midwestern values," Roper said, clearing a plate that seconds ago held a meaty portion of duck leg confit. "Most city people here don't eat late. Even in neighborhoods with great population density—the Gold Coast, for instance—there are very few places to eat after 10:30."
While that's not exactly true—there are plenty of taquerias, diners, and fast-food joints, plus the occasional Kamehachi or Iggy's—there's certainly a scarcity of higher-quality late-night dining. Roper, until recently anyway, had been banking on the hope that there was a market out there for him to tap: initially that was the raison d'etre of his bar's new dinner menu. That, he says, and serving tavern fare you'd be hard-pressed to find anywhere else.
Roper came to Chicago from Detroit in 1982 wanting to open a bar. He'd been in the business since the early 70s and had what he thought was a pretty good idea: "I wanted a bar with craft beers as the focus," he says. "I didn't want a sports bar. I didn't want live entertainment. I wanted just a neighborhood bar with good beer." His inspiration was the Detroit institution Cadieux Cafe, famous for hosting Belgian sports like feather bowling (similar to boccie ball) and pigeon racing. But it wasn't the sports that caught his fancy; it was the moules and frites—and the beer. "I always had a respect for what the Belgians do," he says. "Their sort of antique, unchanged brewing methods."
During the 80s Roper drifted in and out of odd jobs—bartender, construction worker, record-store clerk—looking for a place to buy. (Because of zoning complexities and the city's tightfistedness regarding liquor licenses, it's much easier to buy and convert an existing bar than to open a new one.) In 1991 a 7 AM dive on Clark just south of Foster—known in the neighborhood as Hans's, after owner Hans Gottling, reputed to have introduced Chicago to the ubiquitous Andersonville wintertime drink glogg—came onto the market. Roper jumped, spent the first couple months selling off Hans's remaining stock, and has since amassed one of the finest beer selections in town. These days it's 200 strong and counting, focusing on Belgians and European and American craft brews plus a couple rarities like mead, the syrupy-sweet liqueur made from fermented honey.
Roper thinks of himself as a bit of an iconoclast, and his bar bears that out. He's never served regular old beer ("macrobrews," in the parlance), and he refuses—despite some pressure—to have a television. "It changes the whole room," he says. "It's a conversation killer." He has no interest in pandering to the coveted twentysomething demographic. ("The products we carry, the music we play, the whole vibe is not about attracting the next batch of kids"), and with the new menu—dinner service started in July—he's aiming to go against the grain as well.
"We don't have a hamburger. We don't have fried mozzarella sticks. The Sysco Systems truck doesn't pull up here," he says, referring to the food-service company that provides many Chicago restaurants with their wares. Instead, Roper hired chef Monica Riley to create a seasonally changing menu using fresh regional ingredients. The one constant will be the mussels. Steamed in a French abbey ale with thyme and shallots and served with a cone of pommes frites, the plump shellfish come in heaping portions (the bowl for one is $10; the bowl for two, which Roper says could feed four, is $19). Among the other standouts on the menu are a delicious open-faced sandwich of house-cured salmon on raisin-filled pumpernickel that comes with a salad of fennel, frisee, and capers; a smoked duck breast sandwich served with tomato-ginger jam; and an entree of braised rabbit with grilled new potatoes that comes with a bread salad with currants. For dessert there's a cheese plate.
Roper's created a cozy nonsmoking dining area in a rear room behind the bar, and, pending the resolution of licensing issues with the city, there may be a second bar and space for drinking upstairs as well. For now, Roper's kitchen is serving till 12:30 Fridays and Saturdays and till 11 the rest of the week (and will soon be open for lunch on the weekends). He'd started out staying open even later but says there wasn't much business. That may not be due to midwestern values, however: "Practically no one knows we have food yet," Roper says. "We still have people come in here and order pizzas."
The Hopleaf is at 5148 N. Clark; 773-334-9851.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Andre J. Jackson.