As you would imagine, the newest location of the popular Hackney’s north suburban restaurant & bar chain is located in Chicago’s Printers Row neighborhood. “Hackney’s Printers Row” opened in the former Moonraker space in 2002 and is the newcomer to an area not known for its bar scene. Nearby Kasey’s and Blackie’s have hung on for years, Bar Louie opened up yet another spot just prior to Hackney’s, and the most recent version of Jazz Showcase has also moved in—all as part of the neighborhood’s regentrification that also includes the conversion of old printer buildings into loft condominiums. The South Loop Club and Buddy Guy’s Legends lie a bit to the east, but for some reason seem far away… Perhaps that’s because the Printers Row neighborhood feels like a small literary enclave in the South Loop, which now benefits from the burgers and beer found at Hackney’s.
Printers Row is relatively unknown to outsiders due to its location south of Congress Parkway, The Loop and the gigantic gothic gargoyles of the Harold Washington Library Center. This unique Chicago neighborhood is most well known for its annual Printers Row Book Fair. What can only be described as a “literary extravaganza,” the book fair is held every June, and features a bevy of booksellers from all over the city and Chicagoland area. Both Dearborn and Harrison are completely closed down, so that the bookies can peruse through hundreds of stands. I highly recommend checking out the book fair, even if you only have a slight interest in books. You can find anything – rare editions, inexpensive hardbacks, finely bound volumes, cheap paperbacks, pulp fiction, etc. I’ve personally built a collection of Chicago guidebooks, going back to 1953. The book fair stems from the neighborhood’s history as a center of publishing at the turn of the 20th Century.
“Printers Row is just south of the library and a walk down Dearborn Street to Dearborn Station will showcase some of the old printers buildings including the Franklin Company building. After the Chicago Fire leveled the city in 1871, this section of Chicago, then known as the Custom House Levee District, became the most notorious crime/vice section in Chicago, home to Chicago’s red light district. By the early 1900s, the once crime ridden district was deserted until the printing companies moved in, giving the area the current name of Printers Row. I believe all of the printing companies are now closed, the buildings converted into condominiums. Dearborn Station, once a recruiting site for the area’s prostitutes, is no longer an active station, it now houses a small shopping center.”
Hackney’s Printers Row can be found at the northeast corner of Dearborn and Harrison, and just north of the Chicago landmark Dearborn Station. Outside of Hackney’s, you’ll find a black and white horse & carriage logo stenciled on the pub’s large windows. Pass through a small entryway between two wooden plate-glass doors, and you’ll be greeted by the hostess stand on the right. The place isn’t very large, so there will most likely be a short wait for a table. If so, they’ll take your name and you can grab a drink at the long, dark wooden bar that runs the length of the maroon-painted south wall. There’s an oddly angular, diamond-like extension towards the end of the bar that accommodates additional patrons. The bar offers a dozen beer taps, featuring several intriguing varieties such as Stiegl Pils, Tucher Hefeweiss, Hofbrauhaus, Jever, Delirium Tremens, and one of my personal favorites McSorley’s, of which the German brands are available in either half- or full-liter glass mugs. Behind the bar is a mirrored backdrop that doubles the image of a strange collection of thin human-like things that stand before it, including one of Picasso’s impression of Don Quixote. You can also find seating at a smattering of cocktail tables located just inside the front window and running down the northern, mirrored inner wall of the front room. Wooden slats run across the green painted ceiling, in-between recessed lighting that gives the room a warm feeling – I personally found the bar at Hackney’s to be particularly warm and inviting when it provided ideal refuge following a windy deluge at the 2003 Printers Row Book Fair, which had the book vendors scrambling to protect their wares and visitors scattering to find shelter. Let’s hope for better weather this year, although Spring in Chicago always leaves something to be desired…
A more relaxed, kid-friendly, non-smoking seating section can be found in the dining room, which runs the length of the barroom. This area features beige painted walls, a plethora of dark wood, low-rider tables and a ceiling painted in silver so that the exposed duct work blends in. Mirrors hang from the northern wall and paned mirrors are set into the south inner wall, giving the place a roomier feel. The bathrooms can be found in the back, beyond a couple of back-lit stained glass windows set into small retaining-like walls in front of the server stand. My recommendation: do not stand in this area if you are waiting for a table as there is an endless stream of activity to and from the kitchen. There’s also a small wooden chair between the men’s and women’s to provide a much-needed rest for the men as their better halves powder their noses. During warmer days, you can also find seating outside at about a dozen tables in the Hackney’s sidewalk café.
In-between green, two-page laminated menus you’ll find an array of Hackneyfood that focuses on their famous burger and sandwiches. However, you’ll also find a pleasantly surprising brunch menu that features several different types of omelettes, blueberry pancakes, French toast made from crusty pane Italiano bread, and apple-cinnamon oatmeal, all of which is served on the weekends from 8:30am to noon on Saturdays and 1:00pm on Sundays. If you’re there for a burger, make sure you’ve got room for an appetizer, soup or salad. The signature “Original French Fried Onions” are notable for their battered and fried sweet Spanish onions, served in a what literally looks life a loaf of fried onions instead of bread. If you are with a party of less than four, I recommend ordering the half loaf. Also, I recently saw a posting on Metromix that suggested to order this dish “loose” and “extra crispy” with barbecue sauce, which sounds like a great idea to me. Hackney’s also serves homemade kettle potato chips, hummus, toasted spinach ravioli, and mini-cheeseburgers. Those on Atkins or South Beach diets will appreciate the following salads: strawberry & spinach julienne, grilled chicken Caesar, chicken Waldorf, albacore tuna, and blackened salmon.
Alright, you want to hear about the burgers. Very well. If the success of the entire Hackney’s chain were boiled down to one thing, it would be the “Hackneyburger.” Since the original Hackney’s location opened at the end of The Depression in 1939, the Hackneyburger has been prepared in the same manner: a half pound of ground beef (never frozen), slapped down on top of a dark rye or bun (baked fresh daily without preservatives), topped with a slice of raw onion and your choice of American Swiss or cheddar cheese, and served with French fries and a side of coleslaw prepared from their original recipe (quite good, not too much vinegar or mayonnaise). Slight versions of the original include the bleu cheeseburger, buffalo burger (made from farm-raised buffalo), turkey burger (not sure if they’re “farm raised” or not…), veggie burger, and the strangely unlauded “Inside-Out” burger, which is a Hackneyburger stuffed with sharp cheddar cheese and smoked bacon. It was only until I wrote this review that I realized the existence of the Inside-Out burger, and it makes me feel strangely depressed to know that I’ve never tried one before. Guess what I’ll be ordering on my next visit… Anyway, the hamburgers are fantastic in my opinion: juicy, tender and featuring those little plastic indicators of how the meat was cooked. The only issue I had with the Hackneyburger is that it comes pre-formed, given it a slightly mass-produced feel even though it is not. For a good comparison of Hackneyburger vs. the world, try checking out the burgers at Moody’s Pub, Jury’s and Twisted Spoke.
Not into burgers? You’ll also find a selection of other classics: French Dip (roast beef, thinly-sliced, dipped in au jus and served on a homebaked French roll – is one of my favorites), Rueben (corned beef or turkey), horseradish roast beef (oven-roasted beef, mild cheddar, vine-ripened tomatoes, red onion, leaf lettuce, and creamy horseradish sauce served on a freshly baked French roll), blackened catfish sandwich, New Mexico Chicken Melt (spicy chicken breast, pepper jack cheese, fresh avocado, and tomato served on grilled sourdough bread, and the Bleu Cheese Steak Sandwich (tender shoulder cut, butter-flied, topped with bleu cheese and served on a grilled French roll). In addition, if you find yourself at Hackney’s during lunchtime, you can get a cup of soup & half sandwich for just $6.95, and Hackney’s also has a menu for the kids.
Hackneyburgers, brunch and healthier fare alike attract a mixed crowd that reflects the surprisingly diverse crowd that makes up Printers Row – local condo dwellers after work and on weekends walking their dogs, older couples, single writer-types, kids, Columbia College students, and a pleasant lack of pretension from the black leather-jacketed crowd further to the north. Here, like it’s older sibling Kasey’s, you’ll actually find people wanting to have a conversation at the bar and waitstaff that are more concerned with your service than their tip. All in all, Hackney’s has a great urban American pub atmosphere.
With all due respect to neighborhood favorite Kasey’s, Hackney’s Printers Row is the best joint in Printers Row for a pint and a pretty damned good burger, and is one of the gems in the vaunted Hackney’s chain, which has been slingin’ burgers since Jim Masterson opened the original location on Harm’s Road in Glenview, in 1939. The best way to get there is to take the Red Line to the Harrison station or grab a cab (it shouldn’t be too difficult to find one afterwards, but you might have to walk over to Congress, State and maybe even Michigan Avenue). My recommendation: check out the Printers Row Book Fair in June if you can, load up on some reading material and then grab a Hackneyburger while you review your loot. You may also want to grab a sandwich and a pint just prior to a show at nearby HotHouse. For more information on the burger maven, check out the Hackney’s Printers Row website, and for more information on the Printers Row neighborhood and its history, click here. Eat your heart out, Blackey’s!