“Best Ribs in Town”
As the name implies, the Fireplace Inn provides plenty of cozy warmth for your externals in winter via their namesake wood-burning centerpiece inside, while your internals will be warmed with some of the best ribs in the city. In the summer months, your body and spirit will be warmed in the beer garden that doubles the size of the place and could stand as its own sports bar and which is enormously popular for Bears games and the annual Wells Street Art Festival, as is the sidewalk café that offers the best people watching on Wells. Add to that its long history and you’ll quickly realize why the Fireplace Inn has become an Old Town institution, popular with locals and celebrities alike.
Not to be confused with the Fireside Inn (Ravenswood) or Fireside Bowl (Logan Square), the Fireplace Inn is located in the heart of Old Town, on Wells Street next to the Suite Lounge and across from Burton Place and Bistro Margot. The structure now housing the Fireplace Inn was originally opened in 1966 at “John Cale’s Fireplace Inn,” with Richard Novak having opened the present version in 1969. The building dates back to 1873, having been erected just after the Great Conflagration of 1871, and was listed as belonging to a plumber, insurance broker, bookkeeper, and then the short-lived Rigoletto Opera Café in 1965. The current owner, of the Novak family, even lives upstairs at this unique brick two-flat – how old-school is that? If you’re sado-masochistic and drive to the Fireplace Inn, you’ll find valet parking for $10 out front as you’ve got a snowball’s chance of finding street parking even with the meters along Wells. Chicago Bar Project recommendation: grab a cab or take the Brown Line to Sedgwick and hoof it a few blocks over. However you get there, the Fireplace Inn can easily be spotted with its flaming logo set upon a large, hanging black sign that matches the awning.
Upon arrival, you’ll locate the Fireside Inn’s main entrance through the sidewalk café filled with metal high-backed chairs and cocktail tables. This area is packed during the Wells Street Art Fair held every June and challenges the staff to prevent patrons from illegally handing beers to those on the street. Step through the plate-glass door and you’ll find yourself in another beer garden, this one being much larger than the sidewalk café and which has more of a sports bar feel. The entire area was added in 1991 and is covered by a retractable beige canopy and is even heated in winter (for which they pay up to $5,000 per month just for the gas bill). Faux-timber walls go well with the wooden floor made of well-worn planks that cover what was once a parking lot. A square wooden bar with high-backed chairs dominates the southeast end of the beer garden, with cocktail tables across from it and a rear dining area in the back consisting of low-slung tables. The patio is promoted as being the place for Bears and college football games thanks to the 70″ big screen and banks of TVs hanging from the ceiling and visible from every nook and cranny in the space.
The beer garden features the full menu of the Fireplace, but if you’d rather sit inside, you’ll be shown through another plate glass door opposite the hostess stand and into the main dining area. This carpeted expanse is filled with low-slung wooden tables topped with burgundy tablecloths and white linen napkins. The room also features exposed brick and floor-to-ceiling wooden paneling on the north wall, surrounding the impressive namesake fireplace with a mirror set in above the hearth. The fireplace is said to burn up to a ton of wood each winter and its woodwork matches that of the back bar found at the medium-sized bar found in the southwest corner of the room. The lofty ceiling at the Fireplace Inn boasts dark, thick wooden beams, from which a huge wrought iron and stained glass chandelier hangs ominously over patrons. The chandelier is eight feet in diameter, six feet long and once hung in the old Federal Court building in Chicago. While the city’s smoking ban looms, you can still smoke at the bar and at the tables leading up to the waist-high wooden partition across from the fireplace.
An impressive array of blacksmith tools can be found opposite the fireplace, once located in the middle of the room but now mounted to a wooden display on the south wall. A second display can be seen at the top of the carpeted staircase with brass rails, upon the north wall in the balcony. The rest of the area features low slung tables in the same manner as downstairs, but the main draw here is the restrooms, discreetly placed behind a wood paneled partition behind which a steady stream of the weak-bladdered patrons, primarily from the beer garden and sidewalk patio crowd, disappear momentarily. The balcony serves as overflow from the main dining room and occasionally for private parties, though its salad days were in the 1970s when the Rolling Stones used to come in after shows for the ribs and warmth from a second fireplace – this one of the cast-iron potbelly stove variety (since removed).
Old Federal Building Chandelier
The “Fireplace” of the Inn
While the fireplace is rather impressive, the real story at the Fireplace Inn is the food. An 8½” x 11″ laminated menu illustrates the board of fare, the highlight of which is the baby back ribs that I’ve found to be quite good. The meat is tasty even without additional sauce and pulls right off the bone. Each table also sports a large jar of somewhat spicy barbeque sauce, which is good but a bit runnier than I like. What I didn’t like was the $4 charge for sharing, though it would have been better than my wife having ordered the tomato and onion “salad” (slices of the above served with bleu cheese crumbles) that she found to be quite plain and not of the Mediterranean variety that we love from places like Reza’s. Fireside also serves up Texas-style beef ribs as well as a nice selection of steaks, chops and seafood. A wicker bread basket comes with warm bread as a nice touch. In the 2005/06 edition of Zagat’s Chicago restaurant survey, “‘traditional’ bastion of BBQ” Fireplace Inn was rated solidly as “good” for food, décor and service, along with having ‘excellent ribs’ (‘dripping with taste’), with an average meal costing you about $26. Zagat’s went on to note that, “…fans also ‘enjoy’ ‘watching a game’ ‘on the huge projection TV’ or sitting in the ‘nice outdoor area’ in summer, but foes would rather skip what they call the ‘standard’ fare and ‘so-so service’.” The kitchen at Fireside is open until midnight every night and they also deliver. As for drinks, you’ll only find three beers on tap and a fairly standard selection in bottles, though the ladies tend to prefer the 32-ounce “Big A$$” vodka lemonades for $12, especially in summer.
The crowd at Fireside mostly consists of middle-aged locals, younger area denizens lured by the outdoor areas and visitors looking for ribs. The Fireside Inn has also been known to attract celebrities like Tom Hanks, Liza Manelli, Cubs players, and numerous anchors from the local news outlets, which doesn’t surprise me as the place is easily the most elegant rib joint in the city. As for the best ribs, nearby Twin Anchors consistently gets the nod, and other notables to my mind include Smokin’ Woody’s (North Center), Gale Street Inn (Jefferson Park), Miller’s Pub (Loop), and Carson’s (around Chicagoland). When you’re at Taste of Chicago, you can check out the Fireplace Inn’s signature ribs as well as their boneless rib sandwich and mozzarella sticks at their booth. Fireplace Inn has often been described as a ski lodge-type atmosphere, but I find it to be more of a spacious Redhead Piano Bar-type place. Both are dimly lit, upscale but very comfortable and surprisingly good, though the Fireplace Inn boasts almost 40 years in business. For more information, check out the Fireside Inn website. Now hand me a wet nap!