““To say John Barleycorn is only a saloon is to say that the Great Wall of China is merely a fence.”
It’s gigantic. They have somehow caused the second installment of the John Barleycorn Memorial Pub empire to make the original location in Lincoln Park appear small by comparison. Located in the busy bar corridor along north Clark Street, Barleycorn’s has undoubtedly stolen business from formidable nearby competitors, including the Gingerman, Yak-zies, Sluggers, Bar Louie, and Goose Island since it opened in 2000. Perhaps it is the prevalence of wood, all things nautical, a plethora of busts, or the artwork hanging on the walls that lures a throng of patrons. Whatever the case, Barleycorn’s seems to be the only one that attracts a well-dressed, younger crowd and lots of good-looking women. To its credit, Barleycorn’s seems not to attract hordes of sloppy drunk, sneaker-clad Cubs fans after games even though Wrigley Field is located just up the block. To my mind, a place calling itself a “pub” has a rather intimate, and relatively quiet social atmosphere. Barleycorn’s couldn’t be more the opposite: it is sprawling, loud, packed, and the top floor serves as a full-blown dance club. Regardless, Barleycorn’s Wrigleyville is a great place to hang out in when you’re up for being seen in a crowd and to show off your trendy new designer clothes.
According to the John Barleycorn Memorial Pub website, John Barleycorn’s was named after a term for the, “personification of barley as used in malt liquor, or any intoxicating liquor,” as found in the Random House Dictionary. This comes from Robert Burns’ poem entitled, John Barleycorn, which celebrates the barley-to-malt liquor process.
“Then let us toast John Barleycorn,
Each man a glass in hand;
And may his great posterity
Ne’er fail in old Scotland!”
Barleycorn’s Wrigleyville is easy to spot along this congested section of Clark with it’s enormous art deco, red brick façade, well-known logo and “John Barleycorn” written in calligraphy, and a line of people waiting outside to get in. I almost didn’t go in the first time because I did not want to feel like an idiot standing in line. However, the line forms not because the bouncers are being selective with attitude, but because so many people go to Barleycorn’s that a line inevitably develops. The line moves rather quickly to cause a minimum of annoyance. And, more importantly, there is no cover charge. As you walk through the copper-plated doors and large wooden vault-like entrance, you’ll encounter a huge room. The main bar in all its mahogany glory stretches along the middle of the room. A sea of tables is located on the left side of the room, and is the best place to get a bite to eat. The right side is somewhat more narrow, with tables pressed up against the wall opposite a plentitude of barstools. Additional seating is located on either side of the entrance against the front windows.
The Lincoln Barleycorn’s nautical theme continues at its bigger, younger brother. There are ship wheels, model clipper ships, and framed paintings of ships and explorers. Wood everywhere compliments the theme in the paneling, tables, chairs, bar, entrance, floor, and shelving that holds all the nautical trinkets. The rest of the room is topped off with old-fashioned lights, Greek and Roman-like busts above the entrance vault, gigantic saucer lights hang from the ceiling, and two big screens that display a slideshow of Western civilization’s greatest artistic achievements are located on the rear wall. The décor along with classical music is an attempt by John Barleycorn’s to promote a more upscale atmosphere. This definitely works, and gives character to the bar. However, I think the original location retains more character because of its smaller size and mature age. The classical theme at the Wrigleyville location is quickly abandoned when the Cubs are playing or after 10:00 p.m., whichever comes first.
A long set of polished wooden stairs leads to the immense top floor. This area gets incredibly packed on the weekend, with patrons grooving to throbbing techno music. The upstairs looks like an airplane hanger with its giant curving roof, lateral beams of wood, and two giant ventilation shafts running the length of the room. The nautical theme is not present up here. Instead, exposed brick walls host a few mirrored beer signs, and that’s about it for decorations. More importantly, getting a drink upstairs is not difficult at John Barleycorn. While it can be a pain in the ass in other large venues like Joe’s, Barleycorn’s has a giant wooden middle bar (similar to the one downstairs), as well as two satellite bars located on either side of the entrance to the room. The majority of the upstairs is one giant wooden dance floor, but seating can be found in the raised dining area capable of accommodating over 120 people. This area is located by the giant plate glass windows overlooking Clark Street and Wrigley Field. Additional seating can be found before 9:00 p.m., but these tables are cleared before the crowd pours in. The big screens are also switched off at this time. Barleycorn’s is open until 2:00 a.m. on weekdays and Sundays, and 3:00 a.m. on Saturdays. If you’re up for late night, I suggest taking a cab to Nick’s Uptown after your Barleycorn experience.
Since the bathrooms are located far away from the bar, one has to wind their way through the masses to take a leak. I would budget 15 minutes for a round trip to the can, when one considers the time it takes to get there and wait in a line of cross-legged patrons. Some time is saved as one rushes to get out of the bathroom before the attendant notices you so that you don’t have to leave a tip just to receive a paper towel and a mint. Why on Earth do they have an attendant? I don’t know, but the same irritating thing can be found at the Wild Hare, House of Blues and Ranalli’s.
The crowd at Barleycorn’s would make anyone that tries to avoid a hardcore yuppie crowd run for the hills. However, if you’re hanging out in Wrigleyville or most parts of Lakeview for that matter, this type of crowd goes with the territory. Most people make an effort to get dressed up beyond jeans, t-shirts and baseball hats like at other bars in the area. Women especially do a fine job of making themselves pretty. So guys, if your head tends to be on a swivel when cute girls are around, you may want to leave your woman behind if you’re going to Barleycorn’s to help stay out of trouble. On the other hand, this move could get you into a lot more trouble, if you know what I mean… Despite the nice clothes, the atmosphere has more of down-and-dirty meat market feel to it, especially upstairs. The later it gets, the more it feels like you’re at Beaumont’s.
Barleycorn’s serves a good variety of appetizers, sandwiches, pastas, entrees, and brunch on Saturday and Sunday. Unfortunately the quality of food and level of service mimics the location on Lincoln: completely hit or miss. Barleycorn’s promotes their half-pound burgers as the best in the city (like every other bar that serves burgers), but I’ve had one and wasn’t that impressed. On the other hand, I’ve had their Louisiana Chicken Sandwich topped with mozzarella and Barleycorn’s spicy sauce and it was gorgeous. Whatever concerns you might have, $2 Sam Adams pints and all-you-can-eat fish & chips on Wednesdays makes Barleycorn’s hard to resist.
Barleycorn’s has successfully converted a former factory and warehouse space along north Clark Street to extend their 100-year-old, upscale pub experience from their original location in Lincoln Park. With its success in Wrigleyville, owner Samuel Sanchez may yet expand into Bucktown or the Magnificent Mile with future locations. My recommendation: head over to Barleycorn on the weekend with a group of friends when you’re looking for a good place to hang out in for the night. You might want to get your start at the Irish Oak or Redmond’s beforehand, and Nick’s Uptown afterwards, but Barleycorn’s is the place you want to hang out in when the midnight hour approaches. The Mexican tapas version, Moe’s Cantina (under the same ownership) is located next door. For more information, an online virtual tour, menu, details on both locations, and classical music, check out the John Barleycorn Memorial Pub website. Ahoy, matey.