The Lincoln Square bar with a huge German beer selection closed weeks ago … and I think now I’m finally ready to eulogize it.
On February 2nd, 2011, my life changed after a night at the Huettenbar.
It was the night of the great Snowpocalypse, with its thundersnow, massive drifts, stranded cars and snowmobiles on Lakeshore Drive, I was cozied up inside the Huettenbar along with my wife and a handful of other hearty city dwellers, not just celebrating the wild weather but our own determination to be out in it.
The next day I woke up to text messages from my work telling me that despite snow up to my waist and the Brown Line’s current inability to run at street grade (where I lived off of Rockwell), I needed to start hiking through the snow to the Western stop and get downtown.
I quit that job the next day.
I credit my time at the Huettenbar for contributing to that decision, which turned out to be one of the best in my life. After a few months of freelance funemployment, I landed a gig exponentially better, and I had my wife, thundersnow and a night at my favorite local bar to thank.
The Huettenbar, which closed last month due (I assume) to the world entirely going to shit since March, was my local, my go-to, my favorite bar since moving to the Lincoln Square area in the mid-2000s. It’s been our destination for celebrations, for hooky days, for pre-concert meetups and post-dinner nightcaps, for business outings, for multiple NYE celebrations and countless other trips that didn’t require a single damn reason at all.
It was a place where the bartenders tracked their tenure not in weeks or months, but years. How many places have you gone where there’s a new face behind the bar every single time you go? Not here. We knew the Huettenbar staff, and they knew us. It was the only place I’ve ever been fairly considered a regular, to the point where even a few friends on Facebook are Huttenbar staff. This may be a slight step over the social boundary line, but no one’s complained yet.
What made the Huettenbar so special? It was one of those places that … well, forgive the cliche but it really just felt like home when you were there. It was dark, it was usually fairly quiet, it proudly ignored the craft beer revolution going on outside its doors because it knew what it was — it was a German bar that poured German beer in a once-German neighborhood where a good time was valued above all else.
Even as the Meyer Delicatessen gave way to Gene’s and as the Brauhaus eventually slipped away, I thought for sure the Huettenbar would survive. No kitchen to worry about, a handful of longtime employees, a few draft lines to keep clean and a juke box to keep operating. I thought for sure that the Stiegl Pils and the Spaten and the BBK and the Kostritzer would continue flowing, with only a couple craft beer interlopers like Temperance and Begyle stealing a handle here and there.
My mistake. And now just the Hansa Clipper — a similar yet mostly charmless German bar down the street — survives for some reason. No one ever said this world was fair.
The Huettenbar wasn’t just a destination, it defined seasons. Springtime didn’t start until the front windows were open and tall glasses of frosty hefeweizen were being drained from the sought-after stools and tables in the sunshine.
It wasn’t summer until Van Halen was blasting out at hammered Maifest attendees and it wasn’t fully fall until those windows shuttered again, wherein the best seat in the house moved from the very front to the back corner.
It was also secretly a really good cocktail bar, where all the classics were reliably top-notch (like the filthy gin martinis always ordered by my wife and made by thankful bartenders, who were likely thankful for a break from pouring me beer after beer) including a Bloody Mary with Old Bay seasoning that’s now our standard bearer.
Those drinks would often come with a side of industry conversation about the next business moving to Lincoln Avenue, the latest entitled idiot that had to be 86’ed, the best thing on the menu at the new breakfast place in the neighborhood.
The Huettenbar was from a time in Chicago when you didn’t need to have multiple locations to make a living being a bar owner, from when bars could have a real human personality instead of a “concept” or just a boring all-things-to-all-people blandness. (At the risk of this really turning into a nostalgia fest, remember those weirdo bars with charm to spare like Club Foot and the old Tuman’s Alcohol Abuse Center?)
You may think it a bit weird that my favorite bar in the city was one that barely gave a shit about American craft beer, but if you haven’t noticed by now that the best bars are about people and atmosphere and community and not so much about the rarest thing they have on tap, you’ve still got some learning to do about tavern culture.
The Huettenbar knew who it was and stayed true to itself to the last, in spite of what were surely dozens of distro and brewery reps who thought maybe they could get a handle of their latest IPA pouring there. You got it, or you didn’t. Surely there were many people who left after one round, wondering why they got all those funny looks for ordering a round of Coronas.
Our last couple trips to the Huet were in hopes of helping them keep the lights on — we bought cocktails to go, we drank beers at tables in the alley out back (which was almost certainly illegal but hey, too late to do anything about it now), we grimaced at the padded chairs up on the bar and tables stacked in back.
Still, we hoped that even with a whopping six seats available, they could maybe stick around and keep things going for a bit longer. Our final visit was one for the ages — we had the place basically to ourselves, and we talked with socially-distanced friends for hours over Stiegls until we peeled ourselves from the window seats and slowly trudged home.
And then, one day, the sign was off the front, the windows were locked up tight, and the Huettenbar quietly slipped into Chicago tavern history. Maybe someone will put a bar in there again. More likely someone will put a doctor’s office, or a boutique shoe store, or a cell phone outlet.
Some call it progress. They aren’t opening any more bars like this on the North Side, that’s for sure.
If anyone happens to see Lorien, Mike, Julia, Suzie, Pete or Irma, tell them I said thanks for all of it. It was great while it lasted. A tall glass of Stiegl or Julius Echter won’t be the same anywhere else, and I can damn sure tell you I’ll never find another bar with a reliable supply of Hirter Morchl.
You’ll be missed, Huettenbar.