Mix in a late 70s vibe, with 50s cocktail craftsmanship, some 21st century arts and entertainment, and a backyard
-shake-and you have Logan Square’s The Whistler. Intimate, dark, laid-back, cool-but not too cool-and the Whistler is the kind of place that can make even the hip stir.
At first glance, you can tell the Whistler is a different kind of place, if you don’t walk right past it-which is what I would’ve done had not a friend grabbed my sleeve. A storefront gallery occupies the front windows featuring installations from emerging and established artists that are rotated every few months. With curtains backing the art and blocking the view inside, the entrance may resemble anything from an art gallery to a branch of the public library, but certainly not your average bar. To confirm you’re in the right place, look for the bar’s discreet stenciled sign on the glass door-the lines that regularly form on weekends after 10pm are also a good indicator.
The wheelchair-accessible entrance takes you down a concrete ramp into a narrow rectangular room where you’ll first encounter a fractured photograph of co-owner Robert Brenner’s parents that perfectly captures the Whistler’s free spirit. Bare, low-wattage bulbs illuminate the unadorned brick walls, with the small backlit bar along the far wall serving as the focal point of the room. A cramped, elevated stage sits in the front of the room, offering a bit of extra seating and space for the DJs when live music isn’t on the schedule. Limited seating is available just inside the entrance and in back, but the majority of the floor space is left open to accommodate the show crowds. Additional seating possibilities exist in the picket fence and Christmas light-lined backyard patio, which easily doubles the Whistler’s capacity.
The Whistler does for cocktails what the Map Room does for beer: showcases the possibilities. Like the artwork out front, the cocktail menu changes seasonally. Head Mixologist Paul McGee—named one of Chicago’s Top 10 Bartenders by Metromix—continuously pushes the envelope when it comes to creating and showcasing new concoctions. Some may complain that craftsmanship slows the speed of service, but you simply can’t rush art. Though I felt fit as a fiddle during my visit, I opted for the Penicillin, an elixir of White Horse and Laphroaig Scotch, ginger liqueur, honey syrup and lemon. Each of the equally complex and inventive specialty cocktails run a mere $8, making it one of the best values of its kind in the city. You’ll also find a decent selection of bottled brews, and lest you think that the drink list labels the place as a bit highbrow, for everyone you see sporting a cocktail you’ll find another clenching a PBR tallboy.
The Whistler resulted from the six years partnership of owners Brenner and Billy Helmlamp, whose record label was renamed Whistler Records to coincide with the bar’s launch in 2008. The Whistler serves as home base for the label’s eclectic local acts, including Brenner’s own group Black Apple, but the small concert space features an array of entertainment that few other venues of its size can match. Literary and performance art events supplement the live music, like the monthly Orange Alert reading series and Movieoke, where performers act out famous movie scenes while the film plays behind them. Live acts span alt-country to indie rock and jazz to folk, world music and hip hop. Other times, DJs spin equally eclectic sounds on theme nights ranging from the ongoing Ambient Music Series to 70s punk revivals. A different act or event is featured virtually every night of the week, but almost all of them share at least one thing in common: no cover charge.
To label the Whistler a Logan Square hipster bar isn’t entirely accurate. While you’ll find your fair share of flannel shirt wearing locals sporting Al Pacino circa Serpico beards, the night’s entertainment will largely dictate who you’re drinking with. So, the folks coming to see an acoustic set from Leroy Bach of Wilco will differ considerably from those for jazz singer Francessa Esme or reggae rockers The Drastics, for instance. Overall, the arts-friendly crowd is laid back and approachable, as pleasantly devoid of attitude and pretension as the place itself. While there is no food on hand, drinks are served at 6pm Monday-Thursday, 5pm Friday-Sunday, and flow until 2am (3am on Saturdays).
If you enjoy the fine arts, the art of music, conversation or the cocktail, you’ll likely find the Whistler to be a minor masterpiece. If you like the Whistler, you may want to visit Violet Hour for drinks followed by a stop at Gallery Cabaret for some free live music. For the current cocktail list and showtimes, check out The Whistler website. Encore.