Here at the Chicago Bar Project, we make it a habit to avoid critiquing comedy clubs. With the exception of Second City, they tend to be somewhat creepy places that make the city’s discotheques feel warm and homey. However, the “Lincoln Lodge” is the closest we’ve come to making an exception. Though the Lincoln Lodge actually refers to the weekly stand-up comedy forum held in the former banquet room of the Lincoln Restaurant, and is not really a lodge at all, we will use this name to refer to the semi-secret bar and performance space.
The Lincoln Restaurant, home to the Lincoln Lodge and whose waffle fries are excellent, is located on Lincoln Avenue just north of its intersection with Irving Park and Damen in the heart of Chicago’s North Center neighborhood. Just look for Abraham Lincoln’s giant noggin over an American flag on the lighted sign hanging over the sidewalk. To gain admittance to the Lincoln Lodge, enter the Lincoln Restaurant, walk all the way to the back and hang a right. There you will see two wooden panels that serve as doors but blend in with the wall when closed thanks to its lack of handles and wood grain matching that of the wall. When open, the panels reveal the secret space that is the Lincoln Lodge.
Once you step through this mysterious portal, you’ll find a dining room-sized space reminiscent of “The Dresden Room” in the film, Swingers. A sink area filled with plastic pitchers and salt shakers lies across from a wooden Lion’s Club plaque. In-between, a tiled floor leads to an area filled with low-slung wooden tables with burgundy leather upholstered chairs, glass sconces upon off-white papered walls with wood-paneling halfway up, and funky red patterned carpet. A white drop ceiling with low lighting emanating from votive candles gives the place an intimate feel even though it is not small.
Thirsty? Of course you are. Each table contains a list of libations displayed in the finest of plastic stands, all of which is served in 12-oz. glass steins—even mixed drinks. Beers featured include an 80’s retro combination including Heineken, MGD and Moosehead. Though the bellywash is not expensive, feel free to “Big Ass-it” for a total cost of only $6 for 32-ounces. That’s less than 19¢ an ounce! Such things make us giddy at the CBP. Waitresses serve patrons of the seated variety while a tiny, track-lit bar area in the back serves those that have more pressing needs. There you will find what I consider the centerpiece of the space, even if it is located in the northwest corner: a mural of what looks like a Moroccan sunset over a mountain triad. Three wooden archways help frame this most excellent piece of bar-iana, which match those separating the bar from the rest of the room. Across from this scenic view, is a tiny wooden bar with high-backed, black-leather upholstered chairs that is tended by an older woman who keeps the bar open as long as she wants to. A few tables in the bar area provide additional seating and a solitary television and a video poker machine provide supplemental entertainment for short attention-spanned patrons between acts. When you need to take a slash, you’ll find the bathrooms at the back of the room through a doorway in the western wall that breaks up the oddly patterned wallpaper – striped with copper bands.
The main attraction at the Lincoln Lodge is in fact the Lincoln Lodge – a weekly offering of stand-up comedy on Friday nights from September through May, brought to you by co-organizers Mark Geary and Thomas Lawler. Each week, touring performers share their schtick in an attempt to amuse patrons after a few “Big Ass” beers on a slightly elevated stage at the eastern end of the room. The level of talent showcased as part of “Lincoln Lodge” is actually pretty good. Many of the comedians have previously performed in such television shows as Late Night with Conan O’Brien, BET’s Comicview, Saturday Night Live, and The Chris Rock Show. Each night, the show officially begins at 9pm but really starts sometime after that. The room itself opens at 8pm and all those 18-and-over are welcome. As you enter, a suited man wearing a fez hat, in honor of the strange and likely fictitious character of Dwight “Hairy” Heggenberger, stands at the door and will take your $7. You will then be seated by the hostess. As you’re perusing the drinks list, please note that there is a one-drink minimum (no problem for you, Chief). On the night I was there, the “Lincoln Lodge” began with a band called Hot Buttered Rum, featuring a woman playing a saw. They even mic the saw. I used to work for a microphone company, and this was the first time I’ve ever seen a saw mic’d. A comic host, who is actually a comedian from the Lincoln Lodge repertory, then came on, made fun of the band (and saw playing), and introduced the other comics and “variety” acts (i.e., music, juggling, fire-eating – you know, the usual). Periodic inclusion of “The Man on the Street” interviewing passersby with all questions inane broke things up a bit. Since I originally created this page, Tom Lawler, e-mailed me and commented, “This show was actually atypical of most others in regards to the start time and overall very loose show structure. If I remember correctly, we almost had no audience to speak of that night — luckily something that doesn’t happen with much regularity.” Once the show has finished, you can mingle with the comedians in the bar area as they tear down the stage within what seems like a matter of seconds after the last comic has finished.
In addition to burlesque, the Lincoln Lodge hosts the College of Complexes every Saturday night. Also known as “the playground for people who think,” the College of Complexes is a weekly speech forum (i.e., debate) that has been going since the beginnings of the Eisenhower administration. “Tuition” is a modest $3. Allegedly, banjo jam sessions are held on Monday nights now that the Monkey Bar is a distant memory. While the Lincoln Restaurant serves up some fairly good family-style nosh, I would personally recommend a meal at the Orange Garden before the entertainment commences—a retro Chinese restaurant that’s been around since the 1930’s. In the garden, the food is very good and the decor can’t be beat for old school Mandarin.
The Lincoln Lodge is not a lodge in the traditional Grizzly’s or Will’s Northwoods sense but rather like an old school supper club of yore where nuevo-Freemasons come to make their secret plans while the saw is being played in-between comic sets and in code during debates. These modern Elks and Shriners seem to come primarily from the neighborhood but, since it got started in 2000, the Lincoln Lodge has attracted a growing audience from a wider swath of the city and suburbs. The place doesn’t sell out yet but this could easily change. At the end of the day, your hosts at the Lincoln Restaurant have succeeded in providing some top-notch entertainment, in a rather cost-effective manner, with satisfyingly eclectic decor to boot. What more do you want? Okay, they also sell cigarettes at the counter where Lincoln Restaurant patrons settle their bills. In the meantime, you’ll just have to “Big-Ass it” at home while referring to yourself as “The Grand Puba.”