Editor’s note: if you liked Augenblick, check out the Edgewater Lounge on Ashland & Bryn Mawr, brought to you by Augenblick’s former owners
It still pains me to think that one of the coolest bars on the North Side of Chicago has been turned into a real estate office. So now, instead of being able to drink at a cool joint, you can go there and spend $500K for a condo with paper-thin walls and floors that you can hear your upstairs neighbor’s TV through. In June of 1999, the owners of the Augenblick “lost their lease” and the premises became Schwind Realty & Development, as the owner of this operation also owned the building and decided to give Augenblick the boot. A similar fate was was suffered by the legendary Medusa’s back in the 1980s.
Having opened on December 28, 1988, Augenblick was a bit of Bucktown in the North Center neighborhood, back when Bucktown was rough as guts. God knows, the people of North Center needed the place as most others were townie bars doubling as liquor stores. Even the Augenblick had a questionable legacy as the premises was at one point allegedly a whorehouse where women were “purchased” either upstairs or downstairs, and were “enjoyed” in little cots behind partitions. Gold Star Bar and Southport Lanes, eat your heart out!
“An uncrowded proto-beatnik bar that could be in Bucktown. Cozy and intimate in a dark way.”
– The Official Chicago Bar Guide (1994)
Augenblick turned out to be a lot like the Artful Dodger, with live Celtic music playing on a small stage on Tuesdays in the back instead of hip-hop spun by a DJ. The owners bought the place when the neighborhood bar that preceded it went up for sale and, having experience working at the Smart Bar (Metro) and Sheffield’s, were able to transform the drinking den into a cool bar with a funky vibe. Augenblick’s facade was rather unassuming with its small Pabst neon sign and darkened windows, much like that of the Nisei Lounge in Wrigleyville. The smallish interior sported a dark red and blue interior with a shiny hardwood floor, candle-lit tables, Gilligan’s Island pinball machine, and an old overstuffed couch in the corner. A long wooden bar on the south side of the room served up what was then and now an impressive array of 50 microbrews (including a hand pump and a hometown brew called Big Shoulders Porter) and 11 brands of single-malt Scotch (perhaps as an attempt to rival the Duke of Perth in Lakeview). In addition to the Irish folk sessions (the “best fiddlin’ in town”), entertainment was had from impromptu jams from local musicians, beer tastings, and martini soirees where patrons come dressed in tuxedos and evening gowns – an interesting departure from the usual artsy types clad in black. Augenblick never charged a cover but, if the owner David Butler’s malamute “Jackson” was on the premises you’d have to pet him.
“The crowd here is laid-back, relatively hip, and there are many good brews available. We kinda like this place.”
– Sweet Home Chicago – The Real City Guide (1993)
My only memory of Augenblick was that I once went there on a first date with a girl that refused to drink. It went so well (not) that even though we both lived close to each other in the city and even shared a career in marketing, we could not find anything to talk about. I remember at one point asking her what her favorite movie was. It was at that point that I knew that the date, and the relationship was doomed… Things had been much more interesting when I met her at the Holiday Club in Wicker Park where we talked about her father being in the CIA, and my buddy Nigel (an English chap, whose name wasn’t really “Nigel” but that’s what we called him – that, or “The Limey”) was trading barbs with her red-headed friend whose face looked vaguely similar to that of an elephant. Needless to say, I did not see her again after that.
“The old Augenblick was opened by a man who was a visionary and one of the last many generation Chicagoans with spine that stood tall and had opinions. The Irish sets were started on Tuesdays by him and the original Drovers. It was undeniably one of the best kept secrets in Chicago for years. Just ask any of the (over 35) Irish musicians in Chicago. I just hope the institution that was created by John McLaughlin doesn’t become a memory of the last Augenblick. The one regret John had about selling Augenblick was having sold the name.”
– PB (July 21, 2002)
While my experience at the Augenblick was limited, I can say this with certainty: the Augenblick was not an LGBTQ+ friendly bar. I say this because if you do a search for Augenblick on the web today, you will find it listed under every LGBTQ+ friendly bar directory under the sun (of which there seem to be a great many). I suspect that once it appeared on one list, all the rest picked it up. This is similar to the grossly outdated Chicago beer garden list that I still see floating around. Shameless plug: check mine out for the most up-to-date Chicago beer garden directory around.
“One of the best bars in Chicago”
– Barfly’s Guide to Chicago’s Drinking Establishments (2000)
“Augenblick” is the German word meaning “in the blink of an eye.” Sadly, Augenblick seemed only to exist for that long. Augenblick was a trailblazer like Ivan’s and the now defunct MaxTavern in that it offered North Side patrons something beyond townie bars, German beer halls, sports bars, and cheesy Irish “pubs.” Hell, even the Waco Brothers wrote a song about the bar, a band who are now very popular in Chicago and who once cut their teeth playing at the Augenblick. Happily, some new places have moved into the area and, while they don’t offer the same unique atmosphere of Augenblick, attract a similar young, trendy crowd. Such places include Xippo at Damen and Grace, the Long Room at Irving Park and Broadway, the Tiny Lounge under the Addison Brown Line El stop, and the Daily on Lincoln located just north of the Old Town School of Folk Music. Check out one of these places and be sure to have a drink to the Augenblick. Auf wiedersehen meinen Freund.