“Where Chicago celebrates!”
Once located further north in Lakeview, Pops for Champagne has moved—possibly because it was drawn there by natural forces—to the posh fringe of River North that lies just south of the Gold Coast. Pops may very well be the physical manifestation of the word “decadent” with its incredible selection of champagnes, as well as its desserts, upstairs hook-up scene and downstairs daily jazz, giving nearby Andy’s Jazz Club and BackRoom a run for their money. Simply put, no one features a more impressive champagne list in Chicago, and throughout the entire Midwest, than Pops for Champagne.
Pops is located at the northeast corner of State and Ohio Streets in the Tree Studios building, originally built as part of the Medinah Temple complex in 1894. Large windows set within a green-painted, wooden façade offer a view into what is usually a crowded island bar, with its eye-catching construction entirely from natural onyx and amber glass. A few flatpanels hang above the bar. Grab a high-backed wooden barstool if you can or a seat at one of the leather sofas around the bar. Beyond this area is a room with coolers and shelving stocked with champagne that you can purchase and take home with you, though it closes well before the bar.
In the southeast corner of the room, you’ll find a wide staircase under a purple neon “Jazz Club” sign that leads down to a den of jazz in the basement. Here you’ll find a more relaxed and comfortable room with banquette seating and a large, semi crescent-shaped bar set against the south wall. The low ceilings and exposed stone walls are meant to evokes an underground Parisian jazz club of the 1920s. The slightly elevated stage, curiously sparse, lies opposite and features regular jazz trios from Tuesday through Thursday ($8 cover) with more well-known headliners on weekends ($15 cover). If you get there somewhat on the early side during the week, you might be able to sneak in without paying cover at all (like yours truly).
Once seated, you’ll have the opportunity to pour through the many-paged, leather-bound menu of drinks, light appetizers and desserts. My advice: unless you’re a bona-fide champagne aficionado, ask the waiter for recommendations. They’ll gladly teach you all about Brut, Milanese and Taittinger champagnes. Overall, there are 125 world-class champagnes to choose from, including non-vintage, vintage, grower-producer, prestige cuvées, rosé, and sparkling wine, all ranging in price from $45 to $1,500 a bottle and $25 to $75 for a half bottle. Even the coasters feature a quote from Dom Perignon: “When I’m drinking champagne, I’m drinking stars.” In addition to champagne, Pops offers a nice selection of sparkling, red and white wine, cognac, single malt Scotch, port, armagnac, calvado, sherry, cordials, and the bartenders can mix up a mean martini to boot. In addition, the bar’s signature summer cocktail, known as the “Celestial Fizz,” which is a combination of cognac, Grand Marnier and champagne. All this fizziness goes well with the small plates menu featuring caviar, oysters, cheese plates, flatbreads, and chocolate fondue.
“Pops has an extensive list of champagnes ranging from normal, human price to out of touch with reality outrageous.”– Shecky’s Bar, Club & Lounge Guide 2002
Overall, Pops for Champagne is like a polished, well-mannered and, at times, equally lecherous version of Nick’s Uptown. While this may not be the most flattering description, just keep your eye on the lone suits at the bar waiting for high-maintenance one-nighters. Alternately, it’s mostly couples looking for a high-priced night on the town in a romantic setting, particularly on Valentine’s Day, New Year’s Eve, birthdays, anniversaries, and even for wedding receptions. While they tend to be older, Pops is also a great place for younger couples as the waiters serve without much pretension, as long as you’re wearing “dressy but casual” attire.
Pops for Champagne easily has the largest selection of bubbly in the Midwest, and it has been so since the bar opened in March 1982 when owner Tom Verhey hired Chicago architect John Nelson to convert what was a Lakeview grocery store into a champagne bar featuring 13 champagnes and a limited bar menu. The idea came to him after visiting Reiss’ Champagne Bar in Vienna while working as a salesman for Bell & Howell. In August 1986, the property next door was acquired and transformed into a jazz club, again designed by Nelson, while the original space was converted into Star Bar. All of the above is particularly impressive considering that the neighborhood was rough and gang-ridden back then, and Pops for Champagne has certainly had a transformative effect on the neighborhood, much as Dave Jemilo’s Green Mill did for Uptown around the same time. Though some my rue the day Pops for Champange moved from its elegant location in Lakeview following Bastille Day 2006, the new location fits in well with the posh area surrounding it. Sadly, Pops’ original sunken bar, pleasant beer garden, and Star Bar are a thing of the past, their old location is now Kirkwood Bar & Grill and the rear patio is now a major scene in summer.
“I only drink Champagne
when I’m happy…
and when I’m sad.
Sometimes I drink it
when I’m alone.
When I have company
I consider it obligatory.
I trifle with it if I am
not hungry and drink
it when I am. Otherwise,
I never touch it…
unless I’m thirsty”– Lily Bollinger
Since Pops for Champagne opened, many piano bars and cabarets like the Gold Star Sardine Bar have come and gone, but Pops endures. Head there once and there will be no mistaking why Pops stands out as one of the most unique bars in the city. While others like the BackRoom, Jazz Showcase and Andy’s Jazz Club try and do very well, Pops stands out for its touch of class in champagne, atmosphere and service. Dom Pierre Perignon himself, the Benedictine monk who invented champagne’s bubbles, white wine and first used cork as a bottle stopper, would be proud. For more information, check out the Pops for Champagne website. See you at the bar, dah-ling…