Los Angeles Times

As the South Loop grows, nightlife struggles to catch up

Tribune entertainment reporter

The two twentysomethings approached the door and stopped dead in their tracks. The cause: A singer was mangling Shania Twain's "Feel Like a Woman."

"Oh no, it's karaoke night," one woman said to the other. But after a slight hesitation, they both waltzed into the Wabash Tap anyway.

Where else would they go? The South Loop may be one of the city's fastest growing areas, but it appears to be growing faster than the neighborhood's nightlife options. And those options are mostly limited to the north side of Roosevelt Road, with a martini bar (Tantrum's ), blues club (Buddy Guy's Legends), a hip little live-music venue (HotHouse) and a late-night dive (the South Loop Club) the best of the pick.

"When you come to a street like Roosevelt, you have to decide if you're going to cross it," said Nick Ostendorf, a bartender at Grace O'Malley's, an Irish Pub and restaurant that opened in May. A few eateries have popped up on the south side of the Roosevelt border, including Opera and Saiko, along with the Chicago Firehouse, which like O'Malley's and the Wabash Tap, is owned by 36-year-old Matt O'Malley.

If somebody is looking for a no-frills neighborhood hangout simply to knock a few back, O'Malley's and the Wabash Tap are the only true "bars" in a neighborhood that, in recent years, has suffered the E2 tragedy, leaving the Cotton Club as the South Loop's only true nightclub. At O'Malley's, people come mainly for the food, leaving the spot virtually empty after the kitchen closes.

"Let's say we're a neighborhood place without a real neighborhood," O'Malley's manager Joe Basilo said. "We're looking ahead to what this neighborhood could be."

O'Malley's, which is open until 2 a.m. Monday through Saturday and midnight Sunday, is an upscale Irish pub with extraordinarily high ceilings, a long dark walnut bar and cherry wood floors. It feels like the perfect place to watch sports on the plasma TVs or to just converse with your neighbors. Except, most nights, there aren't a lot of people to converse with. In order to draw some sort of weekday crowd, O'Malley's now is featuring live Irish music on Thursdays, but that hasn't done the trick. Ostendorf, who lives in Wrigleyville, said the owners are willing to be patient in their attempts to draw a crowd.

"There are a half-dozen more buildings going up," he said. "In the next year, you're going to start getting more people in here."

The Wabash Tap, open for almost two years, has been more successful, tapping into the college crowd with its "no ties" dress code. The place, which once housed Koko Taylor's blues club, purposely looks like a dive, with a blue neon sign whose glow can be seen from the high rises surrounding the area.

During the day the clientele is mostly construction workers from the seemingly endless condo, townhouse and loft projects going up along Indiana, Michigan and Wabash Avenues and Clark Street. They come in for lunch, sampling the $3.50 burgers, for instance, from the Firehouse. The late-night gathering consists of college students lured by cheap beer ($2 Pabst, Stroh's and Old Style), off-duty cops and employees from the area restaurants, all playing pool and listening to classic rock from the smoker-friendly watering hole's jukebox.

"This area reminds me of Bucktown 15 years ago," said Wabash Tap manager Mike Cain. "Remember how that used to be? Right now, people go to Bucktown as a destination. This isn't a destination where people say, `Let's go to the South Loop.' But that's going to change."

The biggest night of the week (the Tap is open every day until 2 a.m., 3 a.m. on Saturdays) has turned out to be the recently added karaoke night on Thursdays. It's hokey but it works, as 40-year-old Mark Stumpf points out after his stirring rendition of Deep Purple's "Smoke on the Water."

"As you can see, there isn't much to do around here," said Stumpf, a 10-year South Loop resident. "I'm optimistic things will pick up."


Grace O'Malley's and Wabash Tap

Where: Grace O'Malley's, 1416 S. Michigan Ave., 312-588-1800; and Wabash Tap, 1233 S. Wabash Ave., 312-360-9488.

What's cool: The staffs at both places are exceedingly friendly, like at most neighborhood joints.

What's not: There isn't much action in the neighborhood, which is probably why the staffs at both places are so darn friendly. Terry's tip: Try the single-malt scotch list at O'Malley's.

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