LINCOLN PARK — For most of its 14-year run on Halsted Street, Tonic Room was considered more of a dive bar than a music venue. It was the kind of place where the bartender — not an engineer — would do sound checks in between serving drinks.
Now a new owner is stepping in with the goal of putting live music first and joining the strip of popular blues clubs that line Halsted like Kingston Mines and B.L.U.E.S.
"I want it to be the best small venue in Chicago," said Donnie Biggins, who worked as Tonic Room's talent buyer for five years before recently buying the spot at 2447 N. Halsted St.
Despite Tonic Room's small size (it can fit only 100 people), big name acts like Chance The Rapper, Brendan Bayliss and Jake Cinninger of Umphrey's McGee and Hannibal Burress have all performed there over the years.
As the new owner, Biggins said his focus is twofold: Upgrading the venue and bringing in good musicians — performing everything from folk-rock to funk — to draw in both neighbors and folks from outside the area.
As part of the renovation, the interior and exterior are both getting fresh coats of paint, the cracked leather seating will be reupholstered and new artwork will be hung on the walls. The name will stay the same, but a new logo and sign will give the spot a fresh look.
"This has always been a dive bar. That doesn't mean it has to be dusty," Biggins said.
The hours will change, too. Biggins wants to open at 11 a.m. every day to draw in more neighbors.
He also plans to take better advantage of the new happy hour law by offering a special every Friday between 5-7 p.m. with country and honky-tonk music that would evoke musical thoroughfare Broadway in Nashville, Tenn.
A couple TVs will be installed in the sole event the Chicago Cubs make the playoffs, but they will be covered up when the guitars come out, Biggins said.
Perhaps the most ambitious plan is to build an outdoor patio, which is contingent on city approval. Biggins envisions patrons drinking outside on warm nights and possibly outdoor concerts if the city allows it.
After working as a talent buyer at various venues in Chicago since 2009 and playing in a band himself, Biggins said he's confident he can bring in quality musical acts on a regular basis, which will make the spot more of a destination. A sound engineer — not the bartender — will handle sound checks at upcoming shows.
"I'm taking my attitude toward booking and treating artists and bringing it into a venue that is welcoming to everyone," he said.
Before Biggins, Nicolas Nepomiachi ran Tonic Room for 14 years.
"I think [Biggins] is going to do a lot of the same things that made us who we were and bring a lot of new energy and young blood into this place," said Nepomiachi, adding that he gave it up to spend more time outdoors and with his growing family.
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