“Stay loose and be powerful!” *
At the time of this writing, I wondered why it had taken so long for me to write up a review on Matilda, as it is one of my favorite bars in Lakeview. It didn’t start out that way. I recall a fairly poor level of service when the bar opened – it seemed impossible to get a drink, my biggest pet peeve. However, over the last 10 years, Matilda has come into its own and, not only offers a much higher level of service, but also has one of the most unique interiors of the city, an excellent selection of cocktails and upscale pub grub, a pool room where you won’t have to wait forever-and-a-day to get on one of the tables, and they even free Wi-Fi though the Chicago Bar Project cannot condone laptop use in watering holes… As far as bars go, Matilda is the whole package – just watch yourself on those stairs, bub.
Matilda, not to be confused with the Goose Island beer of the same name, can be found nestled into the northeast corner of Sheffield and Barry, a few blocks north of the Brown Line Wellington stop and a few blocks south of the Vic Theatre/Brew & View. Matilda replaced the short-lived Chicago Draft House, which used to be a decadent dance club called Union prior to that and closed because of “numerous and interesting reasons.” As part of its transformation into Matilda, the space at 3101 N. Sheffield was completely renovated both inside and out. Gone are the neon beer signs of the Draft House, replaced with a sign depicting an orange exclamation mark on a white background and a bright orange Matilda neon sign in the windows with wooden blinds that open out in summer, very Bucktown-esque.
“The decorative tone for MATILDA is based on the combination of two elements… ZINC and CHROME. Zinc Chromate reflects an earthy + golden hue. This combination is one of the most founded and static combinations on the periodic table.”
As you walk up to Matilda, you’ll see a sign announcing that only those over 23 are admitted ala Schoolyard Tavern, and no one is granted entry on Mondays. Furthermore, bachelor and bachelorette parties are unwelcome anytime. The interior of the bar features a feast for the eyes that looks like the result of a Mexican scrap artist’s opus – a black-painted cement ceiling is choc-a-bloc with framed photographs and strips of metal nailed to it, while exposed brick walls feature more of the same along with a sacrilegiously inverted Guinness sign as well as lamps and dominoes. A seating area filled with retro couches can be found just inside of the plate glass double doors, and additional is had at long wooden tables that extend from the south wall. Cocktail islands lie in-between the tables and a blonde wooden bar that runs half the length of the north wall. Grab a high-backed chair, and you’ll find that the orange stars hanging above the bar, reminiscent of Star Bar down the block, go well with your ensuing intoxication resulting from an impressive selection of beer, wine and/or cocktails (signature martinis include the “Happy Martini” made from Malibu rum, Frangelico liqueur and cream, and the “Envy Martini” made from Absolut Citron, Midori and sour). What’s on tap? A draft menu on the chalkboard helpfully points out, “See all the pretty tap handles in front of your face?” How about bottles? “Look at the shelf above your head.” In 2006, Matilda joined Bricks as the only bars in the entire City of Chicago that serve Fat Tire Ale on tap. According to the manager Kavin Abercrombie at that time, “Fat Tire can be equated to this generations Coors, in that it took forever for this amber gem to make it across the Mississippi (ask your father about that one) for our enjoyment.” A TV behind the bar and above the jade jaguar provides some entertainment, in addition to that of the publicans. My only complaint: the ridiculously high-priced Belgians, with Frambois at $9 and Duvel at $14. You’ll want to head to the Hop Leaf or Map Room instead for ales from the low country at half the price.
“THE sign for MATILDA is a Clock. TIME is a powerful constant.”
A small ramp, tiled in white mosaic featuring the bar’s signature orange exclamation mark, and with a small black wrought-iron railing leads down (slightly) into the backroom, which used to be a dry cleaners. Two orange-felted pool tables are the centerpiece of the room, one of which was were I first ran the table – I’m sure you trivia buffs will appreciate that little nugget… Black booths line both sides of the room, while an array of small, oddly shaped tables and chairs, which are nailed to the floor to thwart furniture thieves, fill up the northeast corner of the room. A rear entrance, blocked off with a thick chain, straddles two more seating areas: the one to the left featuring two leather armchairs, a low slung table and candle, and the one to the right featuring a circular metal table surrounded by several chairs. While there is waitress service in back, you can also grab a drink through the smallish portal that opens to the front bar, above which hang martini glasses sideways from black plastic holsters.
When it’s time to break the seal, take care. You’ll need to grip both railings firmly as you head down the treacherous metal stairs that lead to los baños, the incline of which is almost as steep as the upper deck at Comiskey where it feels like you’ll fall onto the field if you lean forward an inch. At the bottom of the stairs, either your head or your feet will land upon a winking face painted upon the floor. The bathrooms can be found to the right with the mens’ featuring a mannequin’s torso and head above the door, while a service station motif is featured within, complete with oil signs and hubcaps. The blue collar theme continues along with a giant peace sign on the eastern wall in the smallish private party room, dubbed “Baby Atlas,” that is free to book but you’ll need to leave a credit card number to pay for an array of appetizers and subsequent damage inflicted there by that guy in the turtleneck that no one remembers inviting. Baby Atlas holds up to 50 people and features plush couches, its own bar and sound system (bring your own CDs or iPod if you wish), and “college party atmosphere on many a night,” although wine tastings are also held. Just head the Matilda warning: “If you or your guests are disruptive, belligerent, or generally suck, you may be put on an X list and banned from future party reservations, not to mention bring upon the wrath of the great beer god Xolufus.” Larger parties of up to 100 may rent out the pool room on some nights, particularly for fundraisers on Thursdays (check with the management for availability). Outside Baby Atlas and the johns, you’ll also find a payphone along with little area with a place to set drinks. Back at the top of the stairs, you’ll find a payphone next to jukebox and a flashing yellow traffic signal – don’t they always look much larger close up?
Feeling a bit peckish? The pub grub at Matilda is easily a step up from most other bars. Such made-to-order fare includes the usual in terms of appetizers, salads and burgers, but they just taste better. Notable items include: “super spiced white-bean-chicken-chili” served in a sourdough bread bowl, fish tacos ($10 normally, $1 each with $2.50 Pacifico Claras every Tuesday), shrimp diablo pasta, the “stuffed and stacked” filet, and a garlic and onion marinated pork tenderloin, baked with a spicy brown mustard & black-pepper crust.
Due to the age restriction, you’ll find a step up from the frat party, Gin Mill-type atmosphere at Matilda. There’s a kind of a nuevo neighborhood atmosphere, a bit trendy but not pretentious and with plenty of talent, but not at the expense of a good conversation and round of pool, similar to that found at nearby Vaughan’s Pub, Toons or Gannon’s Pub (sans pool). The music is pretty good, thanks to the bartenders, as well as the relatively well-stocked juke.
“MATILDA is a dynamic bar/restaurant that cannot be categorized within the boundaries of its licenses. Its purpose is simply… to provide a cogent dining and drinking experience. If you’re wondering, MATILDA is an amalgam. It is comprised of a vision, a sound, a name and a memory and expectation. She never existed.”
The offbeat, eclectic and thought-provoking Matilda is required drinking for Chicago barflies, suburbanites in the know and for visitors alike. Even those intolerant to smokers will find complimentary clean air on smokeless Thursday nights. Though it gets fairly crowded on the weekends, I would suggest it then as well. Even the usually jaded Shecky’s review calls Matilda a “major score.” What more do you want? For more information, check out the Matilda/Baby Atlas website. Atta boy, Kevin!