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I sat and I sipped and I took it all in, at once enraptured and puzzled by the experience of the Whistler


The Whistler in Logan Square, Chicago Photo credit: Robert Brenner

When one comes across high-quality food or drink at an unexpected locale, we often respond like so: They could charge way more for that, and I’d still gladly pay. For whatever reason, it makes us feel good to say things like this. It’s not just that we’ve succeeded in finding something cheap; we’re also reaffirming our ability to weigh price versus quality in order to spot good value. I’m a savvy consumer, and even if this did cost more I’d pay because I can recognize a good product and have no problem (hypothetically) paying for it. Much is packed into They could charge way more-type remarks, providing fascinating insight into the mind and behavior of the consumer. But flip the idea around and you’ve got something even more interesting, something along the lines of For this price, at this place, this is much better than it needs to be. And this – rightly or not – is the kind of response prompted by a cocktail at the Whistler.

The differences between the two statements above are numerous, not the least of which is that the first is mainly about the speaker: I’d still gladly pay. The second, however, highlights the product and the context in which it exists. These products – inexpensive, craft cocktails – exist in the context of a tiny bar in Logan Square, which is integral to how they’re perceived. Though many neighborhoods on the socioeconomic periphery have made great strides in recent years, there is still very much of a Lincoln Park/Lakeview/River North/West Loop centric-ness to the landscape of Chicago nightlife. Even established hotspot Wicker Park/Bucktown is too “out of the way” for many northsiders, meaning Logan Square probably feels like a trip halfway to St. Louis down 55. And when we do finally make it – yes, I’ve fallen victim to this, too – we do a short “tour” of the neighborhood and swear we’ve got it all figured out by the end of the night. Logan Square is a bit more hipster, “ethnic”, quirky, and cheap, we’ll say confidently. And we leave it at that.

This was essentially the mindset I took with me to the Whistler my first time. Up Milwaukee further north than popular spots Revolution Brewery and Boiler Room, the block was desolate by comparison. The unassuming storefront hardly stuck out from the neighboring shops, even with its bizarre hanging-honeycomb art display in the window, and I began to worry that this was no come-one-come-all establishment but something more radical. Luckily, there was no hoard of bee-keeping revolutionaries waiting to greet me, or Che Guevara lookalikes in skinny jeans performing slam poetry, just a friendly-looking fellow with a well-kempt beard. He checked IDs between glances at the pages of his public-library novel, and in we went.

The place is a tiny rectangle. The exposed brick and metal pipes lend it something of an industrial feel, but it nonetheless succeeds at being quaint, almost “cute”, at the same time. Simple, dark-stained wooden tables and chairs positioned just so; two long benches resembling the pews of a Catholic church bookend the seating area, hugging opposite walls. The bar itself is tiny with a white wooden trim. Everything, down to the two smiling barkeeps and the dimly illuminated liquor bottles on the shelves behind, is in the right place. A snapshot of the interior is a charming visual, almost diorama-like in its deliberate, boxy simplicity.

I walked to the end of the bar – no table service here – and selected a cocktail from a short, rotating list, just one page ahead of the $2-all-day-every-day PBR on the menu. Like the list and the Whistler itself, the “Jungle Bird” was relatively straightforward: a mixture of Cruzan Black Strap rum, Campari, pineapple and lime juice. Nothing I didn’t recognize. The result, however, was far greater than the sum of its parts, a perfect blend of bitterness, acidity and molasses of sugar cane. At $8, the “Jungle Bird” was a swashbuckling success of a cocktail. Even more striking was the lack of anything ostentatious about the whole operation. Whole egg, hand-ground Himalayan nutmeg, and drinks with more ingredients than a box of Hamburger Helper had no place here. The extremely approachable bartenders (none of whom wore any bowties, suspenders, or curly mustaches), casual and unabashed chit-chat during the DJ’s ambient music set, and – for the love of God! – $2 PBR showed just how unpretentious this place was. And unlike many other trendy spots touting top-notch mixology programs, the Whistler clearly understood that a cocktail – like a piece of clothing, art, furniture or what have you – is rarely the end-all be-all, but functions instead as something of a facilitator for meaningful human interaction. They understood that a well-made drink should encourage conversation, not dominate it.

I sat and I sipped and I took it all in, at once enraptured and puzzled by the experience of the Whistler. If you’re scoring at home, this place was “out of the way”. It was not pretentious. They proudly served inexpensive, “common” beer. It was somewhere to talk over a drink rather than talk about one. And it was cheap (around $8 per featured cocktail, some as low as $6). And yet these drinks, while simple, were on par with anything I’d had at The Violet Hour, Barrelhouse Flat or any other member of Chicago’s mixology elite. In short, they were much better than they needed to be. They probably could’ve gotten by with Bacardi and a splash of Minute Maid. But perhaps my perspective is skewed. Perhaps even I – a resident of Ukrainian Village – still somehow sit atop a Lincoln Park perch looking down on the anything too west, too south, too unknown. Perhaps excellence without self-importance is simply what this bar, these people and this neighborhood are all about.

Stefan Castellanos

Stefan Castellanos is a Chicago native and current resident of Ukrainian Village. He has written and blogged about everything from sports to theoretical linguistics, fearlessly mixing various genres and topics to create a style all his own. His more recent fascinations include nightlife and travel writing, each piece a toilsome yet toothsome exercise in self-discovery. He's liable to drop everything one of these days and board the next flight to southern Italy, where he'll cover the regional soccer team and sip table wine with locals each night at some corner trattoria.

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