Willie Wagner: Honky Tonk BBQ

 
Willie Wagner

By: Dana Ragazinskas

Why travel to Tennessee to get award-winning, southern-style BBQ, when you can get it right here in Chicago? Just head on over to the Pilsen neighborhood, and make your way into Honky Tonk BBQ. It’s here that you’ll find great food and the master of BBQ himself, Willie Wagner.  If he isn’t cooking some amazing BBQ, you might just find Willie hanging out at the bar and listening to music with friends. It’s a Local Thing was lucky enough to have Willie sit down and share his life with us. From cooking, television appearances, and world competitions, to booking live music, juggling a family, and running a successful business, Willie seems to have it all down to a T. So let’s look at what the BBQ expert himself had to say in this exclusive interview with It’s a Local Thing.
 
 
Dana Ragazinskas: Honky Tonk BBQ seems to be pretty new on the scene. How long has it been open?

Willie Wagner: We’ve had the “rough draft” of Honky Tonk for 3 ½ years. Before we opened the restaurant, we did 2 years of just catering. We would cater to different festivals, fairs, and even block parties.

DR: Honky Tonk is very unique, unlike any BBQ place we’ve seen in Chicago. How did this whole idea get started for you?

WW: Well mostly from noticing that there weren’t enough rib joints in this town. There are plenty of places to get pizza in Chicago, but not enough places to get ribs. I mean, I like pizza and ribs too, so I figured people would like the kinds of food I like too. So I tested my luck, and opened up my own BBQ place.

DR: Out of all the places and neighborhoods in Chicago, why did you choose this location for Honky Tonk BBQ?

WW: I’m married to the building’s owner, Beth, and we live right above the restaurant. I met her through some friends, and we’ve been married for 16 years now. The kitchen was actually built as a catering kitchen by Beth in the 80’s. The kitchen was idol and empty at the time, so we decided to try our luck and start selling some good meat.

DR: How do you keep your personal life and your work life separate since it’s all in one place?

WW: That’s a good question. My two kids, who are 10 and 14, are homeschooled, so that makes it easy to plan their school work during my work time. This way we get to spend a lot of time together and even have lunch together. We’re closed on Mondays, so we’ll come down here and watch TV or my wife and I will try the different wines.

DR: So do you do all the cooking here at Honky Tonk BBQ?

WW: Yeah, I do majority of the cooking. I do the preparation of the meat, as well as coordinate all of the recipes for the side dishes. I have a lot of help in the back for making the desserts and sides, as well as with the heavy lifting of the meats and so forth.

DR: How would you describe the atmosphere here?

WW: It’s all about the community. Everyone is welcome and we’re open late, so the neighbors can easily stop by. There are all kinds of people here, from all types of places. Many people like come here because it’s not like a “see and be seen” place. We have a lot of different bands, that play a wide variety of music, including: folk, jazz, blues, country, blue grass, all different types of music. There’s something here for everyone.

DR: It seems like music is something that helps characterize this place. Was live music something you wanted to incorporate originally or did it just happen?

WW: No, the music was definitely part of the original plan. In fact, I didn’t want to do it without the music. Music is what makes it fun! Like tonight, we have a band coming in from 6 to 8:30, and then another band from 8:30 to 11. And they’re two totally different bands, with each one having a different following.  Everyone who’s her, that doesn’t have anything to do with the band, will hopefully think it’s something cool and fun…hopefully. When I get out of the kitchen, my friends are usually out here, and so I will come out and enjoy it as well. It breaks the monotony of cooking food all day, which I enjoy.

DR: What goes into picking the variety of bands that play here?

WW: They usually come to me, and we listen to them. We only pick’em if we like’em (laughs a little). We try to get bands in here that have original music, more than just dancing or cover bands. I don’t want to have any bad wedding bands in here or anything. I like to see real talent and real song writers. On the weekends, this really should be a place where people can come and enjoy something special, in the music and in the food.

DR: One of the first things you notice when walking in is all of the artwork on the walls. There’s a ton! Where did it all come from?

WW: All the artwork is owned by a friend of mine. My friend just collects all this stuff; he has a bad antique problem. There’s only one picture that’s mine, which is the Frida painting, right by the front door. I put it there to make the local Hispanic population feel welcome. Plus, it was painted by a local named Marcos Raya, a Pilsen-based artist and a pretty well-known guy.

DR: So let’s get to the food. How is your BBQ different from other places?

WW:  BBQ here is cooked with 100% wood fuel; we don’t cook anything with gas. Just about all BBQ spots in town are cooking with gas, which adds a smell and a flavor to the food that I don’t particularly like, similar to when you’re at home and you notice the difference between cooking on a gas grill compared to cooking on a charcoal grill. We use apple wood smoking chips, so our food has a more clean taste to it.

DR: What are some of the popular items on the menu, the things you notice most people are coming back for?

WW: I would say that we probably have one of the best pulled pork sandwiches in Chicago. The pork is slow-cooked for 16 hours, so all the fat is mostly rendered out of the meat. Our whole menu is healthy BBQ actually, and we’ve got 8 vegetarian items on the menu too.   

 

DR: What kind of skill does it take to cook BBQ?

WW: One thing I find interesting is that I cook pork, beef, chicken, and ribs, and it’s really hard to get them all perfect. It’s a challenge.  You ask yourself, how good is it going to be today? We’ve been open for 3 ½ years, open 300 days a year, and I’ve done it a 1,000 times. It’s a tricky thing to get right, and that’s what separates the good restaurants from the bad restaurants. You know when you’ve made a meal that no one cared about, and you know when people DO care. The way the food is prepared and presented is important. Maybe in another 1,000 times I’ll be even better.

DR: So I couldn’t help but notice THAT (As I point to a giant trophy that’s sitting solely on a shelf near the bar). What’s that all about?

WW: I’m actually going back to Memphis in 3 weeks to try and win another one. It’s a competition for the World Champion of BBQ called Memphis in May. I won that one in 2008, so now we’re working on our recipe for this year’s competition. They don’t really like seeing a trophy go North, but it’s been a couple of years since we’ve won, so that would be nice.

DR: Now that you are an actual restaurant, would you say that most of your customers are those that followed you back when you solely did catering?

WW: Yes, a lot of them are, but a lot of them aren’t. The whole process of opening up a restaurant takes a lot of networking and a lot of luck. Chicago is really good to new restaurants. You open up a new restaurant and they’ll put you in the Tribune, they’ll put you in the Red Eye, the Reader, in Time Out, in Metromix, and then, they’ll tell you what they REALLY think (laughs a little). Fortunately 3 ½ years ago there were very few BBQ places opening up, but this year there were a lot, probably 6 in the last 6 months.

DR: Do you feel the heat of the competition coming in?

WW: Yeah, but you know.  It will take them about a year or so to get it all together and working well. I still have room for improvement myself. People in Chicago know what they like and what’s good, so you can’t serve them bad BBQ and get away with it. People that love BBQ are very passionate about it. They like to try different kinds, different preparations, and different sauces. BBQ is never the same anywhere and will be different from place to place.

DR: So we heard that you were on the Food Network with Guy Fieri. What was that like?

WW: Guy is my buddy; it was great. He got his start in competition BBQ actually, so he really knows his stuff and what it’s like to be judged, good or bad, like the rest of us. It was definitely a great opportunity, and to get the huge crowd that comes with him is great. The new bar area that we’re sitting in was actually built by Guy. Without Guy and his crew, we’d still be in the other small room, doing B.Y.O.B., without a bar. I’m very thankful.

DR: If you can describe yourself in a few words, what would you say?

WW: I’m a hard working guy with a restaurant (laughing). That’s really what it is, but it requires a network of employees and a network of customers to really keep what I’m doing alive.

Willie is a very hands-on owner, putting his heart in his work. Willie is always present, whether he’s cooking in the back or mingling at the bar with customers, Honky Tonk is where you’ll find him. Besides the excellent food and great atmosphere, it’s Willie that keeps the customers coming back for more. So if you want to see what Honky Tonk BBQ is all about for yourself, make your way over to 1213 West 18th Street! The food and the music are only getting better with time, so don’t miss out.

Photo Credits: Dana Ragazinskas & the Honk Tonk BBQ website for the picture of Willie.

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A Dekadent Treat

by: Ally Lullie 

If you think you know someone who seems like they can do it all, wait until you meet extraordinary local, Nikki Kaapke.  From writing her cook book, to blogging, event planning and catering, designing her own apron collection, hosting a cupcake crawl, AND doing 2 reality shows, she gives a whole new meaning to the word multi-tasking.  Nikki, 31 year-old Blue Island native, is one of the most personable people I’ve ever met.  When Dana and I met with her, she made it seem like we’ve known each other for years.  Kaapke attended Harrington College of Design (right here in the city) for interior design, but she couldn’t abandon her true love: food.  This is why she started The Dekadent Diva.

The Dekadent Diva herself, Nikki Kaapke

Sitting down with Nikki at local bar, Mo’s Catina, she told us a little (actually a lot) about all of her accomplishments and goals, as well as what she has up her sleeve for the future.  Welcome to the world of The Dekadent Diva herself! 

The Dekadent Diva is a world of indulgence, exploration, and creation of Nikki’s love of cooking, eating, and discovering new recipes and places for great food.  Since the DD was created single handily by Kaapke, it offers a sense of intimacy and personable attributes; which is unlike any commercial company out there.  Nikki shines being in her element, which is her love for food! Maintaining relationships with clients and fans, she models what The DD is and will continue to be in the future.

Ally Lullie: So to start, the actual idea for The Dekadent Diva, how did you come up with it?
Nikki Kaapke: The DD actually started as a blog, my personal blog.  Following that was the website, then the cook book, then the line of DD aprons, and then our most recent trend, cupcakes. I love food and I love to cook.  I like to go out to restaurants, try what they have, and then go home and try to replicate it. At the time, a friend of mine and his wife recently had a baby so he called me up to help him plan a surprise home-made dinner for her.  I gave him step-by-step directions for making two appetizer choices, two entrees, two desserts, and a cocktail.  I told him to call me if he had any questions along the way, but since the directions were simple, he had no trouble with it.  This kind of gave me the idea to come up with my book of favorite recipes

The DD Logo

AL: The name, The Dekadent Diva, is something that is very unique itself. How were you able to create the name and design of the cupcake logo?
NK:  The name is trademarked which is a process in itself, but I wanted something memorable, catchy, and very much me.  I liked the words fabulous or elegant and had come up with ideas like: “Kiss the Cook” or “Cooking with Kaapke”.  I sent out e-mails to some of my closest friends with my ideas and they all agreed on Dekadent Diva.  The spelling of the DD is a bit of a twist, my name is German and spelled with four K’s, so I decided to spell decadent with a K.

When it comes to the logo, logos are like your face, screaming what you want to represent.  Logos like the Nike swoosh or the Pepsi yin-yang are so widely known that their names no longer need to be put with the logo, which is what I wanted to accomplish when finalizing the marketing image of The Dekadent Diva.  I wanted something feminine, yet not girly.  I wanted my logo to be man comfortable and relatable, meaning that a man wouldn’t feel the slightest bit uncomfortable walking around with a bag with a cupcake on it.

AL: We’ve talked a lot about your love for food and cooking, and your logo is a dead ringer for what you’re all about.  But what else does the DD have to offer?
NK: It is more than just food, it’s a lifestyle.  Yes, we do showcase my favorite recipes and pastries, but I like to think of it as combining the traditional lifestyle with the modern everyday woman.  So, DD in a nutshell is combining the genre

Darling Stacie depicting the 1950's theme for the DD apron line

of 1950’s icon June Cleaver (early inspirations for DD Couture, apron line) with today’s modern day homemakers of Racheal Ray and Martha Stewart.  DD is about personal entertainment, family, friends, and bringing back the sense of spending time together.  Yet, at the same time it’s the fast, easy pace.  So half my recipes are home-made and the other half are ready-made.  I include on the site recipes for almost everything, cocktails, appetizers, desserts, and even kid items.  With my cupcakes, most of them are alcohol infused (laughing), but for the kids I adjusted that recipe with fun goodies like Nerds candy in place of sprinkles. 

AL: You have created this company filled with all the things you love.  So what would you say is your favorite part about owning your own business?
NK: It’s my creation, my concept, my say; I have complete control over it.  When it’s yours, it’s your baby, and it’s also your name.  You have to make sure it’s something you want to be associated with, and if you happen to make a mess of it, you have to own up to it.

AL: So as a whole, how would you say the DD is unique or different from other catering businesses or bakeries in the city?
NK: Other companies can be very commercial or completely small/grass root based; the DD is both commercial and home-based.  I have used some of my friend’s expertise to help me in the process of creating The DD.   I take my time on choosing who I work with, making sure they’re credible and someone I want DD to be associated with.  Many of the people I work with, especially the Darlings, are those close to me. For example, if I have a friend in advertising I’ll use their advertising abilities, put them on staff, and utilize their “know how” and experiences of trial and error. I am taking my time to let Dekadent grow as a company.  Therefore, it won’t be around for 2 years, it will be around for 20 and beyond.

AL: You mentioned the Dekadent Darlings, which it just so happens that I stumbled upon The DD from my friend who is actually one of your Darlings.  Who are these girls and what do they do for The DD?
NK: They are a group of very lovely girls (and dear friends for several years) who, along with myself, are the “face” of The DD.  They make appearances, talk about The DD’s services, and are involved in philanthropy work close to my heart, especially those that are cancer related.  One great thing that was really a success with the Darlings was a fan based contest called the “Darling of the Year” competition.  For the competition, each girl was given their own Facebook page that they were responsible for managing and promoting themselves in order to get votes.  The Darling with the most votes at the end of the contest wins.  The response was incredible with over several hundred votes for the average Darling.  It works because their friends and friends of friends will see it and wonder what it is, which leads them to checkout DD itself.  It helps get the word out and word of mouth is a powerful thing.

Nikki with Darlings Britta, Stacie, April, and Abbie on the Cupcake Crawl

AL: So you recently completed your first Dekadent Diva Cupcake Crawl.  How did the idea for a cupcake crawl come about?
NK: Being a former Chicago realtor, I’m very familiar with the areas around the city. I am constantly telling friends, who come to visit Chicago, about where to

Swirls Cupcakes

eat, shop, etc. So then I thought to myself with the Cupcake Crawl, why not take them to such places myself?  And this is how the idea for the Cupcake Crawl came into play, being a “tour” of some of my favorite cupcake boutiques in Chicago. It ended up selling out in 3 hours!

AL: What does this Cupcake Crawl offer?
NK: We had 65 guests attend the cupcake crawl in all.  We separated the guests in groups of ten, who were courted around on two beautiful mini charter buses that were provided by Windy City Limousine.  Before even leaving our meeting place, the crawlers were given goodie bags filled with cupcakes from Chocolate Bark and a DD cupcake, which I baked myself.  All Cupcake Crawlers also enjoyed sparkling champagne cocktails while we waited for all guests to arrive and check in.  We stopped at some of my favorite cupcake boutiques, including Bleeding Heart Bakery, Swirls, Sweet Mandy B’s, Sprinkles, and Crumbs.  All were a great blend of traditional “ma and pa” boutiques with commercial as well.  Each bakery gave our crawlers between 1 to 4 cupcakes.  All flavors were pre-picked by the bakery and I as a way to save time on the tour.  We also had a personal photographer from 50 mm Photography, come along with us so that the crawlers and I could remember this event. My goal at the beginning was to have everyone leave really full, really happy, and having fun.

AL: This seems like a lot of work and coordinating for one person, what goes into planning an event like this?
NK: A lot! (Laughing) Luckily, I am the friend who likes planning all of the social events.  So for me the first thing you have to think is where do I want to go for the crawl? What flavors do I like? How do I get the word out? I used social networking and word of mouth for a great majority with this event, along with my Twitter and Facebook pages both.  Then there is the work and research of getting the tickets out and how will recipients make payments for them.  I had to do research on transportation; I researched limos, buses, and trolleys.  Then there is the marketing aspects, the brochures and the goodies bags.  I started calling up bakeries that I enjoy going to and eventually some started calling me and offered to donate cupcakes.

AL: Coming from what seems like a “cupcake expert”, what do you have to say about the increasing popularity of cupcake boutiques popping up everywhere, especially in the city?
NK:  You need to pay attention to pop culture, where to go for the best music, the best clothes, top bars, and restaurants.  Cupcakes have been around for as long there has been cake, becoming very popular in the 40’s and 50’s with the “Leave it to Beaver” genre.  Then when it came to the 80’s and 90’s, everyone became really health conscious and everything was low-carb, low-sodium, and so forth.  Now, everything is about portion control and being more aware of the products that are going into things. This is one of the reasons why I’ve created “Frosting Fridays”.  It’s the end of the week and it can be that one sweet “cheat” day on your diet, allowing you to go and eat a cupcake and not feel guilty.  I think the cupcake trend will stay around for a long time.  If it were to fade out, you wouldn’t have these companies involving themselves and investing so much.  Would you ever think you could have a cupcake that is gluten free? No. These companies are finally realizing you have to cater to your customers.  Cupcakes are here to stay and will just keep evolving.

DD Cupcakes

AL: As the cupcake phenomenon continues to grow, what is to come for DD in the future?
NK: Well, I hope to keep expanding my brand and even own my own restaurant one day.  A second Cupcake Crawl is planned for August 27th, and I’m currently in the middle of planning and promoting DD’s Launch Party-“An Evening of Dekadence”, which will be on June 11th.  The event is being held at Soldier Field, a black tie event, with a red carpet entrance.  Guests will view a fashion show premiering the DD Couture apron line, a book signing of the published cook book titled “The Dekadent Diva~Glamorous Cooking for the Simplest of Chefs”, introductions to the Darlings, silent auctions, and DD catering and cocktails throughout the night.  Portions of the ticket sales will benefit the Bear Necessities Pediatric Cancer Foundation, along with all funding from the silent auctions.  It will be a great time, tickets are on sale, and I couldn’t be more excited to enjoy it all. 

The DD Cupcake Crawl was definitely an event to remember.  Dana and I haven’t been to most of these bakeries, so it was nice to visit them all in one morning!  Some of the flavors were so unique, like Guiness and Baileys, champagne, banana nutella, red velvet, apple cobbler, and carrot cake.  The cupcake Nikki made herself was made with pineapple rum, which was just as tasty if not more.
Even though Nikki has been on The Bachelor (season 13) and The Bachelor Pad, she didn’t need any publicity from either show to be successful, doing it all on her own.  I hope you enjoyed meeting Nikki Kaapke as much as we did, and getting a taste of her world.

Follow Nikki & The Dekadent Diva on Twitter, or Like the Facebook Page.
Don’t forget to purchase your tickets for The DD Launch Party (June 11th) & The 2nd Annual Cupcake Crawl in August (Tickets go on sale June 15th).

Get Pumped at Schaller’s Pump

The Front of Schaller's Pump

So we previously talked about different bars for Cubs fans, or places to go near
Wrigley Field, but now it’s our turn Sox fans! Being the only It’s a Local Thing writer who resides in the Bridgeport neighborhood, the Southside is sort of my expertise. So I decided to bring all of you lovely readers to my neck of the woods. When I think of Bridgeport, I think of baseball and politics. Bridgeport is not only the home of the Chicago White Sox, it has also been the home of 5 Chicago mayors (Edward Kelly, Martin Kennelly, Richard J. Daley, Michael Bilandic, and Richard M. Daley).  Since I’ve lived in Bridgeport my whole life, it should be an absolute given that I’d be a huge Sox fan! With that being said, let me take you guys over to one of the best White Sox bars Chicago has to offer, Schaller’s Pump.

The Pump (as locals like to call it) opened in 1881, and has been the longest
running tavern in Chicago ever since. It can be found on the 37th
block of Halsted, with an entrance located on the north side of the building.
Its large parking lot makes it easy for visitors and locals alike to park, stay
for a few drinks, and then walk on over to the field for the game. I mean, how
many Northside bars can say they have plenty of parking?

The Pump has been the stomping grounds for many politicians, conveniently located across the street from the 11th Ward Democratic Organization. Schaller’s Pump is a Chicago landmark, and its popularity resides not only on its great location, but also on the fact that it has been family owned and run since the very beginning. Mr. Schaller, who is in his 90s, continues to help his son and 4 daughters run the business, making for a quaint neighborhood bar. My grandparents have grown up going here, as well as my mom and dad, so it was only natural that I would enjoy The Pump just as much as they have.

Now that I’ve got you up to date, let’s make our way inside. Once you step inside
you will see that it is decorated much like your typical neighborhood bar, having beer signs in neon lights, dim lighting, and a working antique cash register behind the bar.  Also, being located in Sox territory, did you expect anything less than the walls covered in Sox memorabilia? Well if you did, you’d be wrong. The bar fully extends across the north wall with tables placed generously on the remaining floor. The Pump is normally fairly quiet, giving you a very relaxing setting to kick back and enjoy your beer. However, on game days you better expect a bit of a crowd, and definitely more excitement. The Pump is fairly small and comfortable, but they do have a large back room for parties and large groups.

Sox Fans Inside The Pump

The food here is good, but the menu is limited compared to other restaurant menus. They don’t have any appetizers, but what you can find are hamburgers, BLTs, BBQ ribs, orange roughy, hash browns (which are a popular side dish), and believe it or not– a liver sausage sandwich. The Pump is well known for their Butt-steak special, as well as their non-greasy fried chicken and breaded shrimp. They also give you free macaroni salad and beet salad with your bread before your mealarrives, which is something I’ve never seen other restaurants do. I hate to break the hearts of all you vegetarians out there, but their menu doesn’t really give you much of an option. I don’t eat meat myself, so I usually order an old fashioned grilled cheese sandwich with a side of fries or a salad.

There are daily specials that you can find on a chalkboard near the kitchen doorway. Drinks are pretty conventional here, so don’t try and order anything fancy like a martini or they’ll look at you funny. They have a variety of beers, such as Miller Light, Bud Light, Old Style, Heineken, and MGD to name a few. Cold beer is served, depending on which type you choose, either on tap, in a bottle, or even in cans. For non-beer drinkers, The Pump also offers numerous types of vodkas, whiskeys, and rums. All food and drinks are reasonably priced, and the service is well over expectation.

Mitchell's, Shinnick's, and Wings & Rings

There are a few other bars in the Bridgeport neighborhood that are also quite popular during Sox games, such as Shinnick’s Pub, Mitchell’s Tap, and Buffalo Wings & Rings. But I’ll leave it up to you to check out these places. Personally, I’d pick Schaller’s Pump over the others, but after a good Sox game, I’ll usually make an appearance at each one of them (go big or go home right?). Especially with a group of friends, exploring the neighborhood bars is never a bad idea.

Bridgeport is a very welcoming neighborhood, so bring your friends, heck, bring your family, and come on down and enjoy all this neighborhood has to offer. Not to toot my own horn or anything, but I’d say I live in a pretty great neighborhood. The Schaller family takes great pride in their business, which shines through their great food and friendly service. So I recommend stopping in Schaller’s Pump, whether you’re a Sox fan or not, all are welcome. But don’t come in wearing a Cubs jersey, it is the Southside remember.

Location:
3714 South Halsted Street
Chicago,
Illinois 60609
(773) 376-6332
Photo Credit: Dana Ragazinskas & (Guests at Bar- chicago.timeout.com)

Cupcakes from the Dark Side

By: Dana Ragazinskas

Welcome to Bleeding Heart Bakery

No one has to fit stereotypes, so why should our baked goods have to? When you think of cupcakes, do you think of tattoos, piercings, and punk rock? We didn’t think so, but this is exactly what you’ll find at the Bleeding Heart Bakery, where they’ve found a way to bring sweets and treats over to the dark side. So let us change the way you look at bakeries by heading over to Bleeding Heart Bakery to pick up some of their delicious punk pastries.

 

Tattoo Cakes

This bakery is unique in that it’s the first bakery in the nation to be completely organic. They get all of their ingredients from an “all organic” farm, so their prices are a tad bit higher than your average bakery. But as the saying goes, “you get what you pay for.” Although cupcakes are one of the main attractions here, they also have cakes, donuts, brownies, cookies, scones, croissants, and coffee. This bakery also features cakes that look like pieces of art, even offering wedding cakes that are designed to look as if they were covered in tattoos.

Mean Cupcakes

The Bleeding Heart Bakery makes a mean cupcake, literally. They sell little angry cupcake figurines, waiting to be purchased alongside side an edible treat. When I went to Bleeding Heart Bakery, I picked up a “plain jane chocolate cupcake”, which was to die for! It was a devil food cupcake with creamy chocolate frosting, and curly chocolate shavings. I would definitely recommend it, as a way to satisfy those chocolate cravings.

Edible Guns

For Chicago locals who think they’ve been to every bakery there is in the city, there’s a new cupcake in town. Bleeding Heart Bakery, located in Roscoe Village, is open every Tuesday through Sunday from 7am to 7pm. If you’re feeling creative and want to try and recreate some of their fantastic cupcakes at home, pick up their book, Who You Callin’ Cupcake, on Amazon or at any Barnes & Noble bookstore. So, welcome to the dark side and enjoy.

Their Recipe Book

Location: 1955 West Belmont Avenue, Chicago – (773) 327-6934
All pictures are from the official Bleeding Heart Bakery website. So for more pictures and information, click here!

The Fireplace Inn: Ky Novak

By: Dana Ragazinskas

 

Front Door of Fireplace Inn

 
One of the members from It’s a Local Thing (Dana), sat down with the Chicago native and 44-year-old restaurant owner, Ky Novak. Ky is the owner of The Fireplace Inn, located in Chicago’s historic Old Town neighborhood. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the area, Old Town is located on the north side of Chicago. The Fireplace Inn resides on the main strip of Old Town, which is located on Wells Street. Whether you’re looking to dine casually or go a little fancy, The Fireplace Inn has found an innovative approach to improve your dining experience by providing you with a choice. Choosing from upscale to casual, is simply a matter of walking through one glass door. Which ever you choose, this is your place to go!

Ky Novak

Ky is an extremely hard working individual, who lives and breathes the restaurant business. He’s not afraid to get in there and get his hands dirty, always in the middle of the action, even cooking and grilling himself at The Taste of Chicago. He was born into the restaurant business,and is finishing what his father had started. Ky continues to upgrade and enhance The Fireplace Inn, by putting his own personal twist on the restaurant while holding onto his father’s original idea.

It’s a Local Thing could not pass up the opportunity to talk to this dedicated business owner of such an innovative restaurant. We were curious as to what goes into owning a place like this and what makes it stand out above all of the rest. Dana was able to chat with Ky and get some of the insider details we were all dying to find out. This is what the man in charge had to say:

Dana Ragazinskas: If you can describe The Fireplace Inn in one word, what would it be?
Ky Novak: “Cheers”. It’s very similar to the 80s sitcom Cheers, where locals come to eat, drink, relax, and have fun.

DR: What is your favorite characteristic of The Fireplace Inn?
KN: The people! They make us who we are.

DR: How would you describe the area/neighborhood The Fireplace Inn is located?
KN: The best Chicago has to offer. The area is very diverse, friendly, and full of life. It’s a great location, and I’m extremely happy with it.

DR: How would you describe the crowd here?
KN: Since we have two different types of atmospheres here (casual and “slightly fancy”) we attract a large variety of people. We have everybody here; young, old, college students, families,  all races and ethnicities. It’s great.

Main Restaurant Area with Fireplace

 

DR: How is The Fireplace Inn different from any other bar & grill in Chicago? What makes it stand out?
KN: The Fireplace Inn isn’t run like a corporation. Being the owner, I’m very hands on, always there and always interacting with the customers. I like to take part in everything that goes on, getting my hands dirty, and not just siting somewhere in the background. I think the more of my personality and time I put into it, the more we stand out.

DR: Your family took over The Fireplace Inn in 1969. How would you say it has changed since then?
KN: We went from fine dining to more of a pub-style dining experience. You still get that high quality feeling, but with a casual undertone. We really wanted to incorporate sports, and allow our guests to come in, feel comfortable, watch the game, yet still feel that twist of elegance.

DR: What is it like to run a business with your siblings?
KN: We are very lucky. We work really well together as a family so I can’t complain.

DR: Was it always named The Fireplace Inn?
KN: Yeah, we carried over the name when we took over ownership. My uncle worked at The Fireplace Inn as a manager before the owners offered him the opportunity to buy it from them. My uncle, Jim, and my father, Dick, were both very passionate about food and barbecue, so they jumped on the opportunity to own their own restaurant. They wanted to make the The Fireplace their own, yet hold on to tradition with its name.

Main Bar with a Touch of Elegance

 

 DR: What went into the design of this place?
KN: History. We took its original “look”, and continued to modernize as we went along. I wanted to keep the original elegant look, but tone it down, giving it more of a sports bar look, yet still giving you that feeling of being in a nice bar or restaurant. The main addition was the Sport Bar Patio, which was built after we purchased the land next door. This brought the pub-style bar that is adjoined to our fine dining experience in the original building.

DR: Can you tell me about the two different areas of The Fireplace Inn?
KN: Well, our main restaurant/bar and the sports bar are almost completely separate, yet connected by a glass door. Our customers have the choice to sit in either of the two areas, depending on what they’re in the mood for. Our main restaurant/bar is more elegant with dim lighting, fancy chandeliers, a fireplace, deeper colors, and fewer TVs. The Sports Bar Patio has tons of televisions, brighter lighting, a gives you a feeling of being outdoors. The Sports Bar also has a retractable ceiling that we open up for the summer, really adding to the casual/outdoors feeling.  I think that’s what makes us stand out above the others as well; bringing the best of both worlds of fancy and casual, and then you take your pick.

DR: How would you describe the staff here?
KN: Committed. We work hard, and we work hard together. We’re all on the same page, so everything runs smoothly and effectively. I couldn’t ask for a better team.

DR: So I hear that you guys are known for having the best barbecue in the city since 1969. What makes it stand out above other restaurants serving barbecue?
KN: The sauce. It’s tangy with a hint of spice. That’s all I can say without giving too much away.

They Make Their Own Sauce

 

DR: In regard to the menu, what would you recommend to someone who has never been to The Fireplace Inn?
KN: We are known for our barbecue as being the best in the city, as you’ve mentioned, but what we are also known for is having fantastic ribs. So, I would recommend getting a slab of ribs, along with our freshly made 32oz vodka and lemonade, which is another one of our trademarks.

DR: So you’re well known for your barbecued meat dishes, have you recently added vegetarian dishes to the menu?
KN: We sure did.

DR: What are some of the dishes?
KN: We’ve added veggie burgers, veggie pizza, and tomato basil pasta. We also have other foods that a vegetarian may be interested in such as cheese sticks, fries, onion rings, guacamole & chips, and different soups & salads.  

DR: What are some of the specials that are worth making a note of?
KN: Monday through Friday we have ½ off all appetizers from 5pm-7pm. Thursdays we have ½ off our 32oz and 44oz Skyy Vodka Lemonades. We have other daily specials listed on our website(linked) as well.

Skyy Vodka with Lemonade

DR: The Fireplace Inn has participated in many Chicago events such as The Taste of Chicago, Chicago Blues Festival, Chicago Art Fair, Lollapalooza, and the list goes on. What do you like the most about participating in such festivals?
KN: I enjoy being out there because it’s a change, something new and exciting. It’s a lot of work though.

DR: Do you have any special events coming up in the near future that are worth mentioning?
KN: Just around the corner, on June 11th-12th is the Wells Street Art Festival, so come see us there. I recommend attending, not just because we’ll be there, but because it’s great to see all the Chicago artists out there selling their work and it’s a lot of fun.

DR: What is the hardest part about running and managing a restaurant business?
KN: It’s very demanding, but it’s in my blood so it’s easy for me. It’s all I’ve ever known so I cannot see myself doing anything else.

Sports Bar Patio

 DR: What advice would you give to someone who aspires to own a restaurant of their own?
KN: Don’t do it unless you’re willing to live that lifestyle. It’s not easy, so you have to have the drive and commitment. If you don’t have the passion for it, it will show in your work and in your business, taking away from you’re success.

DR: Anything else you would like to mention?
KN: I’m happy to say, we’ve just finished all of our renovations, which is a relief. We’re also adding new bathrooms in the spring! It’s a perfect time to come in and check it out, whether you’ve been here before or not, because everything is brand new.

 

Bar in the Sports Bar Patio Addition

 After enjoying a tall glass of Skyy Vodka and Lemonade, Dana from It’s a Local Thing,  wrapped up the interview with Ky after touring the newly renovated restaurant and bars, even allowing her to see the kitchen. The Fireplace Inn is truly one in a million, offering fantastic food, great drinks, and a good crowd. Not to mention the owner, Ky Novak, being a great business man and nice person. Ky is always running around The Fireplace Inn, so if you get the chance, chat with him a bit, he likes hearing from the people who have made his business what it is today, meaning you guys.

Location: 1448 North Wells Street
                  Chicago, IL 60610-1306
                  (312) 664-5264

For more information, check out The Fireplace Inn official website.

Outside Seating Infront of The Fireplace Inn

 

Chicago River: It’s Not Always Greener on the Other Side

By: Dana Ragazinskas

Green River (Not the soda)

It’s March, which is a busy month for Chicagoans. Not only did we celebrate our city’s 174th birthday, we also celebrated Mardi Gras and Paczki Day as well. If all that celebrating wasn’t enough for you, don’t worry there’s more. Hello St. Patrick’s Day! It’s on March 17th, so mark your calendars if you haven’t done so already.

St. Patrick’s Day is a big deal in Chicago, and in my opinion, it seems like we take this holiday way more seriously than any other one. Which brings the statement “Go Big or Go Home” to a whole new level. Of course we have the St. Patrick’s Day parade, but I don’t think the parade is as cool as all the bars serving green beer and turning the river into the brightest shade of green you’ll ever see. I don’t know about you, but large crowds, long waits, cold weather, and trying to see a parade over a crowd of people isn’t my cup of tea. I usually take a pass on going to the parade and watch it on television from the comfort of my own home. I’d rather watch the parade on TV, throw on a green shirt, and head out with some friends to enjoy a glass of green beer.

Dying our river green every year is pretty unconventional, yet a tradition us locals live by. If you haven’t seen the river when it’s green, I’m sure you’ve heard all about it. But the big question is how the heck do they do it? So I did a little research on the topic, and this is what I found. It all started back in 1962 with Stephen M. Bailey, a business manager of the Chicago Plumber Union. Stephen M. Bailey came up with the idea of turning the river green after finding out that one of the plumbers used bright green dye to detect if any waste lines were leaking into the river’s edge. The river had never been dyed green before, so the amount of dye needed to be used was unknown.

The first year they used 100 lbs of dye, and the river ended up being green for weeks! So the next year they cut the amount of dye down to 50 lbs, and the river was green for three days. Finally they decided to use 25 lbs of dye, which became the perfect amount, leaving the river green for one day. After complaints about the dye being hazardous to the water life, they now use 40lbs of a unique combination of vegetable dyes that leaves the river green for only four or five hours. A boat comes along pouring the dye into the river, followed by a few motor boats to help stir up and blend the color in. The weirdest part of the whole process is that the dye starts out as a bright shade of orange powder, but when it hits the water, it suddenly changes to a bright green. Today, the process of dying the river green is done by Mike Butler and his so called “river crew.”

"River Crew" in Action

The coolest part about the whole thing is that Chicago is the only city that has been successful at doing this, and we’re still the only place that does. I haven’t gotten the chance to see all this for myself, so I think this year I’m going to head down there and get in on all the action. This year they will be turning the river green on Saturday March 12th, starting at 10am. The best place to view “the dying of the river” will be between Columbus and Wabash. So make your way down there and check it out, and then maybe afterwards you can grab a few green beers to top off the day. Want to know how they make green beer? Green food coloring (you’re welcome).

So the moral of the story is avoid the parade, buy an Irish related shirt (if you’re not Irish, pretend), go see the river (impress a few bystanders with your new found knowledge), and drink green beer. Have a happy and safe St. Patrick’s Day!

Photo Credit: For more check out this website!

Not Your Grandma’s Game of Bingo

By: Dana Ragazinskas

It’s bingo time! We can’t think of a better way to spice up your Mondays than with a few games of bingo. As you already know, It’s a Local Thing never brings boring or conventional to the table, so check this out!  Hamburger Mary’s, located in the heart of Andersonville, holds a weekly charity event that they like to call “Hambingo.” This is not your ordinary game of bingo, we can tell you that much! Besides the host being a drag queen, there is also a “halftime performance” of local drag queens showing off their entertaining talents. If you have kids, leave them at home, because things tend to get a little wild and crazy on Hambingo nights!

Your Host & Locals at Hambingo!

Bingo cards are $5 each, and all proceeds collected from the cards will go to the charity chosen for that week. Charities have ranged from animal rescue associations to HIV/AIDS organizations. You can also recommend a charity of your own by contacting Hamburger Mary’s through their website. Buy as many cards as you like, and your cards are good for all games throughout the night. They also have $5 margarita specials and food! On their menu you will find hamburgers (I’m sure you saw that coming), nachos, soups, salads, sandwiches, and the list goes on.

So if you’re looking to have a not so ordinary Monday night, while doing something good for the charities of our city, hop on over to Hamburger Mary’s and prepare for a fun filled night of bingo! Hambingo is held downstairs in their dining room, beginning at 8pm, and lasts about two hours. This isn’t your grandma’s game of bingo, so get ready for a silly and outrageous night of Hambingo!

To find out more information about Hamburger Mary’s or Hambingo, feel free to check out their website for more details!

Photo credits: Hamburger Mary’s Website
 
Check out this video from 190North!