Darwin’s Bar & Grill

1935 N. Damen Ave. (2000N, 2000W) Chicago, IL 60647 R.I.P. 2007

Editor’s Note II: Whiskey Road is already gone as of summer 2008 and is now Chinaski’s Bar with all-you-can-eat bacon on Monday’s (which is what Prodigal Son offered until it burned down…)

Editor’s Note: Sometime in 2007, Darwin’s brief and troubled existence came to an end. Will its replacement, Whiskey Road (part whiskey bar, part movie house ala the now defunct-Liquid Kitty), exemplify “survival of the fittest”?

Photo courtesy of Carl Stumpf

Though it looked like it might be a case of “de-evolution”, Darwin’s is back in business after it closed down for seven months in 2005, from February to September 17. The owner, former Spy Bar bouncer Matt Miller (owner of local brunch spot Orange), opened the bar in 2003 and, despite the paperwork that needed to be “worked out with the Kingdom of Chicago,” Darwin’s offers local patrons a unique combination of libations, vittles, Super Nintendo and free internet access via Wi-Fi all in a cozy, kitschy and unpretentious setting.

Formerly a restaurant called “Phlair,” Darwin’s can be found in Bucktown, on Damen just south of Armitage and one of the best, yet unheralded, French restaurants in the city known as Le Bouchon, and just up the street from the classic pub Lemming’s. Next door is what looks like a coachhouse, set back from the street with a very nice lawn. The bar is nestled in the base of a brick two-flat, and promotes its name in gold on a tasteful wooden sign between two fish-with-legs evolutionary logos. Walk up a few steps and through the door and you’ll find a smallish long, narrow barroom with exposed brick walls, wooden floors, that is divided into a front bar and backroom dining area.

The wooden bar that runs along the southern wall features a nicely designed marble-top and comfortable wooden indentations for your elbows. There, you’ll see more fish-with-legs atop a sign that says, “Two guys walked into a bar… the third one ducked.” Pure poetry. A nice rectangular mirror hangs behind the bar and one, of the Snow White-variety, lies against the eastern wall. Darwin’s isn’t particularly known for its beer, particularly compared with local heavyweights Quencher’s and Map Room, but it does sport a pretty good selection, including Dirty Bastard, Sprecher, Three Floyds, and the pride-of-the-Quebecois Maudite (beers may be available on a rotation basis). An additional bonus: the “Bouquet O’Beers” ($10), which consists of six 5-ounce pours of whatever’s on tap, served in multicolored, footless champagne flutes, in a manner similar to that at nearby Goose Island Brewery. As you sample all of the above, you may notice that the ceiling above the bar is done in classic Chicago style, with silver and copper painted patterned tin, as you fall over backwards on your barstool after one too many Maudites.

Additional seating can be had at a smattering of tables with candle globes and white paper tablecloths. A few are slung low, over by the full-sized jukebox and wooden French windows that open out up front, and presumably are the sought-after spots for those with laptops hoping to jump on the free Wi-Fi connection (the bar apparently has wireless cards available to borrow if you haven’t yet stepped into the new millennium). Word of warning: beer and keyboards don’t go very well together – your PC’s tea-totaling motherboard has a particular distaste for it (don’t ask me why I know, but trust me on this one). The music played on the jukebox is also novel. Like how aliveOne only features live music, Darwin’s features local music on half of its 96-CD capacity. Area bands are encouraged to bring in a CD of their own, perhaps burned from their own PC, and the Darwin’s staff will stick it in the juke for awhile. If it’s crap, it’s out, but if it’s good, the regulars may soon take notice.

A few more cocktail tables stand opposite the bar and are set amongst colorful unframed artwork painted by a few local Cézannes and hung on the beige-painted northern wall. A couple of small, flat-panel televisions can be found around the room, on which you can revisit your gaming youth by having a go on Darwin’s Super Nintendo machine. In fact, the bar hosts a Nintendo tournament every Tuesday night – the fee is $10, sign-up is at 7:30 p.m. and the game starts at 8 p.m. If you’ve come specifically for dinner, you can find a seat in the smokeless, rear dining room at one of two booths or at a few more low-slung wooden tables with their funky red upholstered chairs. A few more tables are placed in the middle of the back room, which creates a nice little bottleneck, and are not recommended to sit at.

Both sets of bathrooms lie just beyond the bar in the southern wall. The men’s room features sayings written on the wall in black marker, though I’m not sure if that was the owner’s intention… I noted one of the scribblings: “People who write on walls write little balls of shit. People who read the writing on walls eat the little balls of shit.” Good stuff. A rather narrow kitchen is located past the lavatories, behind a beige-painted portal where orders are dispensed to the waitresses. Such nosh includes cleverly named “chef-driven pub grub” items like Primordial Soup (a carrot and jalapeno cream combination), and such specialties as the buffalo frog legs (inspired by Le Bouchon’s more traditional offering, mayhap?), pumpkin and wasabi corn dogs (baked pumpkin with wasabi batter served with Mandarin orange ketchup), bacon and brie burger with fried leeks, crab cakes, ultimate ham & cheese sandwich (baked honey ham, white cheddar, grilled apples, and red onion-chive marmalade on challah), smoked salmon potato skins, “cow pie” (homemade meatloaf), and a garlic burger served with roasted cloves – all of which is poised to give Silver Cloud a go, which is located just down the block.

“One odd note: Instead of ringing a bell when a meal is ready, the kitchen staff sounds a contraption that sounds alarmingly like a honking duck (or a person with a head cold). If that kind of thing shakes you up, I’d advise a seat in the well-lit front room instead.”

– Gretchen Kalwinski, Centerstage Chicago

Overall, Darwin’s is one of the best places you’ve never heard of, unless you live in Bucktown. It doesn’t have a whole lot of personality yet, but is blissfully unpretentious. That, combined with the creative pabulum, offbeat libations and other specialties continues to attract locals tired of Northside and looking to venture out beyond Cans, Silver Cloud and Lemming’s – those bar flies that is, in the process of evolving? Darwin would be proud. Intelligent designists be damned!

Sure to have appreciated a good pint