When you live above a bar for four years, you get the feeling you are walking onto the set of “Cheers” everyday. You’ve got your regulars, your bartenders, your friends, your nemeses, and then there are those people you just know about. You know, that guy who left $20 in the ATM more than once and sits at the bar furiously scanning MySpace (free WiFi.. why?). You’ll find all these and more at my old stomping grounds – Mac’s. Situated on the southwest corner of Division and Wood Streets in Wicker Park, Phyllis’ Musical Inn and Smoke Daddy, Mac’s is open daily for lunch, dinner, and furious rounds of drinking.
The Schlitz-tied building (more on that later) has been around for about a century, and initially played host to a tavern named “Walter’s” and other sorts of watering holes. The last business to occupy the space was a bar called The Wood Bee, which was closed for two years before Mac’s rolled in to open in 2001. Mac’s appearance in Wicker Park was a sign of the area’s evolution into what can now be best described as a destination, for locals and visitors alike. The word “gentrification” has been thrown around a lot when referring to Wicker Park’s current status. Lucky for Mac’s they got in early enough, along with Moonshine and others and have had an opportunity to build a loyal fan base and remain a staple for those who live and work nearby. Mac’s owner Tom Magee also owns Tuman’s “2.0” (formerly the much-beloved Alcohol Abuse Center) on Chicago Ave., as well as the now-defunct JT Collins on N. Lincoln.
The significance of the Schlitz globe on the outside of the building is one that lets customers know it was once a “tied house,” which was owned by the brewery and leased to the bar’s owner who could only serve that brewery’s beer – Schlitz in this case. There are only a few remaining locations of the old Schlitz tied houses, including what is now Schuba’s, Southport Lanes, Floyd’s Pub, and Bamboo Lounge. Skylark was owned by Birk Bros. Brewery.
So much for the history of the place, let’s discuss Mac’s. What first attracted me to Mac’s was the façade. They’ve recently added a new rather large sign, lighting, flower boxes and seating for the summer months. It looks like a place you’d want to bring friends and out-of-town guests for a drink (or five). The sidewalk café along Wood Street hosts seating for about 30 and stays open late – way too late if you live upstairs and have to listen to folks talk about things they wouldn’t tell their mothers. There are two entrances to Mac’s – a side door on Wood and a main entrance on Division – either way when you walk in you see one thing – the huge inviting wooden bar that runs the length of northern wall in the front room and seats about 20 at wooden high-backed barstools. The bar has something that I’ve become so accustomed to now that I am mad when they don’t have it at other places – purse hooks by your knees (important for the ladies). Genius.
The rest of the front room has several large booths, cocktail tables, and an island of tables floating in the middle of the room. The latter should be avoided on a busy day. Firstly, you’re faced with the butts at the bar and, secondly, the waitresses have to get past you somehow, and sometimes it’s not pretty. There is a small back room at Mac’s, with about three booths and a few tables, used primarily for Euchre nights and formerly a mainstay for non-smokers until… Did I say Euchre nights? I can’t say for sure if they still host them, but Mac’s has several outlets for entertainment and good cheer. They hosted “Crapple” for a year or two back – a raffle of crap including basketballs, huge containers of mustard, and whatever else you can get at Big Lots! Mac’s sponsors softball teams and organizes golf outings – ones that my husband has come to be a very drunk part of on an annual basis. To a stranger walking in for the first time, Mac’s seems like a friendly place, filled with TVs showing both Cubs and Sox, a jukebox blasting, and shots after shots after shots being poured.
Those shots are typically Jameson’s or Jäger. Not much sets Mac’s apart from being a casual neighborhood bar, except the beer and wine selection. What beer enthusiasts seem to love most and go out of their way to find at Mac’s is their hand-pumped, cask conditioned ale. As you would guess, cask-conditioned ale is conditioned in the cask rather than being filtered and/or pasteurized beer, usually without additional nitrogen or carbon dioxide pressure, and served at cellar temperature that, depending on the time of year, can seem cool to slightly warm. It has a short shelf-life so don’t expect to see the same brew on tap for too long. Call ahead if you’re interested and they’ll tell you what’s available. Other favorites on tap include Bells Kalamazoo Royal Amber, Rogue, and a nicely poured Guinness. Mac’s beer offerings change often but standards include Budweiser, PBR, Goose Island, and Miller. In the spirit of being a former tied-house, you can always order a can of Schlitz if you so desire.
Lastly, let us not forget our sophisticated palettes and consider the wine list. The wine is supplied by a long-time patron of the bar named Kurt, and is tasted by the bartender Tamara before it makes the final cut. It’s nice that they consider the wine list important and keep it on a rotation of new choices. There are nightly drink specials, sometimes including their own concoctions and other times just an average beer at an average price. Costs are on par with the neighborhood’s establishments and, if you are good to your bartender, they’ll be good to you – if you know what I mean…
There have been some seething reviews regarding the service at Mac’s. I guess it’s an online way for disgruntled patrons to let the staff know they are “Just not that into them.” The wait staff has been notoriously preoccupied or blind to the needs of the patrons. They’ve been critiqued about this for years. It’s not the same group of folks though, having witnessed myself that for each season there would be a new crop of wait staff and bartenders. I wouldn’t argue with the ratings for the table service, but to Mac’s credit they have never advertised their service, never made any claims to service with a smile, or even pretended to make changes in response. Make no mistake though, we’re just talking table service. Bartenders fared well in their reviews as they should. The bartenders are interesting, attentive, and hard-working. Some of my favorite people are bartenders at Mac’s, including the aforementioned Tamara (Thurs & Sat nights) and Carrie (daytime). My favorites from previous years included Johnny Angel, Nikki (now at Toons) and Missy (now at Betty’s Blue Star Lounge), who would all call you off the street to come and take shots with them. I mean just you have the shot, they would never drink on the job. Never. As described, the service isn’t what should bring you to Mac’s – my recommendation: sit at the bar if you want to be sure you get your drinks and food without delay. One review of Mac’s mentioned the dog always trotting around Mac’s. That’s the bar manager John Power’s dog, Sam. They live upstairs, eat downstairs, and Sam always hangs out somewhere between the bar and the patio. I can assure you she’s probably breaking the rules, but she’s not the one cooking your dinner and she’s really very cute and likeable. Let’s not complain about the dog.
Food at Mac’s is pretty good. Not outstanding or groundbreaking, but solid. The appetizers range from goat cheese pizza to duck quesadillas. The entrée portioned salads would make your therapist at Weight Watchers balk (points people, we’re talking lots of points) with the inclusions of the Iceberg Wedge Salad that is chock full of bacon and blue cheese, or the Grilled Chicken Salad loaded with goat cheese, strawberries, and walnuts. I love them all. Sandwiches and entrées round out the menu options, some highlights include the Make-Your-Own-Macaroni where you can add chili, chicken, spinach, tomatoes, or mushrooms. There’s also pork, duck, chicken, steak, and burgers to choose from. My favorite is the Grilled Vegetable Sandwich which is filled with squash, zucchini, Portobello, red peppers, feta, and hummus on a toasted roll. All burgers and sandwiches come complete with twice-fried French fries – the kind that leave your clothes smelling like your meal and your stomach feeling guilty, But are sooooo good. Every night there’s a special. I think I’ve seen ribs or fish up on the board, but for the most part it’s a steak creation – carne asada, burrito, quesadilla, etc. Mac’s has a late night menu (an edited dinner menu of sorts) as well as a brunch menu for Sundays. Like I said, the food is pretty good, the prices are reasonable, and it’s open late – all good qualities when you’re looking for a bar.
Speaking of good times, I met my husband at Mac’s. My friend the bartender, Tamara, and her boyfriend at the time, Johnny, lived upstairs from me. One snowy night in February 2006, I went out with friends and decided it was going to be a long night so I best drop my car off at home and use safer transportation. I parked the car and went inside to meet my friends, who had decided to make a pit stop at Mac’s before we headed out. The bartender that night was Tamara and after seeing me she had poured me a pint of my absolute favorite – I can’t turn down cider. That’s right beer enthusiasts, I prefer cider to your beer. I could drink it all day long, although it’s against the rules at work and it would get expensive. So back to my freshly poured drink… I stood at the bar trying to drink it fast as my friends were waiting on me. The bartender’s boyfriend Johnny had just arrived from a raucous, slapping-strangers kind of night out with friends and they had been so kind as to return him to the safety of his girlfriends bar. He introduced me to his friend Bob and it was all downhill from there. I mean I fell in love. We ended up sitting next to each other, probably around 11pm that night, and our friends left us sitting there until last call. We left together and traipsed around Wicker Park trying to make the night a little longer at Gold Star and Estelle’s. We’ve had a special place in our hearts for Mac’s since. A whole table filled with Mac’s friends were guests at our wedding this year.
I’m predisposed to like Mac’s. It feels like home. For those who’ve never been that would like a comfortable place to sit and watch a game, to stand and joke with friends at the bar, to scan the computerized jukebox and try and find the right song to blast, and for those who want a sit-down meal without the hype that comes with hipness, you can come to Mac’s. Maybe you’ll enjoy a cask-conditioned ale, or sit on the patio, or find yourself a spot at the bar and catch up with some of my old friends. Either way, give Mac’s a try if you’re in the neighborhood and decide for yourself. And be sure to pay homage to the Schlitz Family and grab a can.