Chicago is home to plenty of great watering holes, but none is more beloved than the corner bar. Hence we bring you Know Your Corner Bar, a monthly, ahem, dive into the tales and characters behind one of the city’s most storied taverns.
At first glance, you won’t notice the small 3D wood cutout of a “Fish & the Bluefins” poster amid the artwork, overexposed photos and cocktail napkin renderings crowding Gallery Cabaret’s backbar. The boxy figure with a loud orange suit and a guitar (loosely) depicts the late Rick “Fish” Janes, a blues singer who hosted a Tuesday-night jam session at the Gallery in the ‘90s.
He was also the artist responsible for the cutout.
Hang around this quirky, low-lit Bucktown venue long enough and you’ll discover almost everyone in here is similarly polymathic. But the Gallery isn’t your everyday watering hole. Since opening in 1988, it’s put on a live show seven nights a week with no cover charge, creating a platform and community for local musicians.
Owner Ken “Kenny” Strandberg originally envisioned the Gallery as a live jazz venue, in homage to the big-band clubs he’d worked at in Vegas during the 1960s and ‘70s. (If you’re there around midnight, when he tends to arrive, he’ll happily regale you with a Rat Pack story or two.)
Over the years, he’s opened his arms — and his small, spotlit stage — to all kinds of performers: Standup comedians like Hannibal Buress or Michael Che. Upstart musical talents hoping to be the next Liz Phair or Smashing Pumpkins, both of whom got their start here. An off-night practice session from one of the city’s jazz greats. A poetry reading that’ll move you to tears.
Or you may suffer through the longest four minutes of your life, as a would-be comic learns what it means to bomb.
“You might have a few routine nights of drinking here, but then there’ll be that performance that just makes you look up from your cocktail or your beer,” said Bill P., a former musician and regular since 1994 — one of three “Bills” you’ll see at the Gallery at least once a week. “A lot of special things happen here.”
Strandberg is about to turn 80, so you won’t catch him behind the bar as much these days. Now the one they’re asking for is Krystal Irizarry. The tall, soft-spoken bar director’s penchant for all-black and creepers doesn’t do much to hide her arresting warmth. Like almost everyone who’s performed, poured drinks or become a regular here, Irizarry, a former DJ, walked in on a whim and never left.
“Four years ago, I came in with my girlfriend after Googling ‘open-mic night Chicago’ and I was entranced,” she said.
She started as a bartender soon thereafter and worked her way up.
It’s thanks to Irizarry that the beer list has gone from mostly Miller-Coors products to a killer, regionally heavy lineup of craft brews. She’s also the reason a whiskey sour will get you a silky concoction of fresh citrus and frothy egg white instead of the cloying bottled mix served a few years ago. But she doesn’t give a shit if your preferred drink is a pitch-perfect 20th Century cocktail or a $6 Hammeson’s (can of Hamm’s and a shot of Jameson): this is the kind of bar where MGD — the preferred drink of Regular Bill #2 — will forever stay in inventory.
“There’s literally two people who order MGD,” Irizarry said. “One guy is a punk rocker who buys it ironically. And then there’s Bill, who genuinely likes MGD. That’s his beer; he just wants that one. So I have to keep ordering it.”
It’s more laid back on Tuesdays and Wednesday nights, when the Bills like to come in. If you really want to feel the Gallery’s creative pulse, come on Sunday night around 8. That’s open-mic night, and the place is buzzing with musicians, artists, old dudes playing checkers and twentysomethings downing (still $2!) PBRs. There’s a huge, free buffet spread heavy on retro comforts like meatloaf, pork loin or the famous lasagna — all recipes found in Strandberg’s son Mike’s home dossier. Everyone seems to know everyone, and their names.
“This bar’s like my living room,” Ryan Hake, a young actor, said before draining his Pabst. His roommate handed him another. “Do I owe you for this?”
“The amount of creative talent in here is incredible,” jazz pianist Paul Brinnel told me later. “Every single music industry connection I’ve made ties back to this place.” He sipped his beer with one eye on the coveted sign-up sheet. “Sorry, can we finish this later? I gotta get up there.”
A few minutes later, a rock band took the stage, milking their two-song set a bit long. Irizarry mixed me a lillet rouge-laced boulevardier, and waited for me to take a sip.
Photos: Tom Gallagher