LOGAN SQUARE — When the Whistler opened nearly nine years ago, specializing in cocktails, it was one of the only bars of its kind in the neighborhood.
Back then, it was fair to assume that most people traveling down the relatively quiet block in search of drinks on a Friday or Saturday night were headed either to the cozy cocktail bar at 2421 N. Milwaukee Ave. or the notorious dive bar Two Way Lounge across the street.
"There was a better than 50-50 chance they were coming to our place," said Whistler co-owner Billy Helmkamp.
Today, there are a lot — a lot — more options.
Helmkamp, referring to Milwaukee Avenue pedestrians, said, "Now you see a group of eight, followed by a group of five, followed by another group of three, followed by another group of four, and it's not uncommon that all 20 people walk right past us and go into another place."
Over the last few years, Logan Square's bar scene has exploded. Since 2010, at least 10 cocktail bars have joined the neighborhood.
Billy Sunday, 3143 W. Logan Blvd.; Heavy Feather, 2357 N. Milwaukee Ave.; Estereo, 2450 N. Milwaukee Ave.; Spilt Milk, 2758 W. Fullerton Ave.; Lost Lake, 3154 W. Diversey Ave.; Scofflaw, 3201 W. Armitage Ave.; Best Intentions, 3281 W. Armitage Ave.; Deadbolt, 2412 N. Milwaukee Ave.; and Branca Bar, 2367 N. Milwaukee Ave., have all opened in recent years.
Estereo's Latin-inspired cocktails are a hit — the place is usually packed. [Facebook/Estereo]
That list doesn't include new nightlife spots like Slippery Slope, 2357 N. Milwaukee Ave., and East Room, 2354 N. Milwaukee Ave., plus throwback bars like The Native, 2417 N. Milwaukee Ave. The list gets even longer if you include trendy eateries with cocktail-focused drinks like Parson's Chicken & Fish, 2952 W. Armitage Ave.
The Chicago Cocktail Summit, a two-day festival that celebrates the city's cocktail scene, is coming to — you guessed it — Logan Square for the second year in a row in early April.
Has Logan Square reached its peak for cocktail bars? Or is this just the start of something bigger?
"It would've been annoying if they weren't amazing"
The Whistler's Helmkamp said the explosion is mostly a good thing: The more bars that come to the neighborhood, the more people think of Logan Square as a nightlife destination. That not only helps business, but also makes the neighborhood more vibrant, he said.
Explaining that the neighborhood now attracts tourist from all over the country and other parts of the world, Helmkmap said, "There's a draw to the neighborhood from outside Logan Square now, which is great to see."
At the super popular Lost Lake, tiki reigns supreme. [Facebook/Lost Lake]
Chad Hauge, beverage director for Michelin-starred gastropub Longman & Eagle, described the current crop of bars in Logan Square as "some of the best in the world."
"It would've been annoying if they weren't amazing, quality people and amazing places I would want to go myself," Hauge said of the new bars.
On the surface, it seems like new bars could drive up competition and hurt some of the original spots like the Whistler and Longman & Eagle. But bartenders and bar owners — from both new and old drinking spots — say business hasn't slowed at all.
"It's the same as it ever was. Friday and Saturday pays the bills. It was like that when we opened, and it's like that today," Helmkamp said.
Industry folks said that's because each new bar offers something different, which means none of them are getting lost in the shuffle.
For example, Scofflaw is a gin bar, Heavy Feather is a 1970s-style fern bar, Lost Lake is a tiki paradise, and Estereo is all Latin-inspired drinks and vibes.
"As long as everyone's doing their own thing and trying to be themselves, they'll have something unique to offer, and there will be an audience for that," Helmkamp said.
Rory Toolan, beverage director at newcomer Heavy Feather, agreed, saying, "We always have a line Friday and Saturday. The reason is because we provide a very specific experience."
The Heavy Feather, 2357 N. Milwaukee Ave., serves up 70's-inspired style -- and cocktails. . [Facebook/Heavy Feather]
In the world of economics, it's called product differentiation when businesses tweak what's being provided to the general public to establish a protected niche market, said Roosevelt University economics professor Steve Balkin.
Balkin, who specializes in micro enterprises, said there's no one way to tell if a market has become oversaturated, meaning the supply has outweighed the demand. But he said the Logan Square market appears big enough to absorb more cocktail bars so long as the neighborhood maintains its so-called "cool factor."
And unlike other businesses, bars can easily reinvent themselves and focus on something different if the first concept doesn't work out, he said.
"I would not expect a craft cocktail bar to go out of business. What I would expect is for a craft cocktail bar ... if [there is] oversaturation, that they'd change the sign and then become a different kind of bar," he said.
Surf Bar is the perfect example of that. Once the owners realized the beach concept wasn't working, they closed and reopened it as an extension of Emporium Logan Square with the folks behind popular liqueur brand Fernet-Branca.
Lee Zaremba, beverage director at Billy Sunday, 3143 W. Logan Blvd. [DNAinfo/Mina Bloom]
Lee Zaremba, beverage director for Billy Sunday, said another reason the bars are succeeding is simply because the neighborhood is growing.
"Every time I think we've reached a saturation point, they add more developments with people who can afford more farm-to-table restaurants, cocktail bars and all of those artisanal mayonnaise shops," Zaremba said with a laugh.
Local aldermen have different approaches
Two of the neighborhood's three local aldermen, Joe Moreno of the 1st Ward and Carlos Ramirez-Rosa of the 35th, said they want to see more locally owned small businesses in the neighborhood.
They see the "cocktail bar revolution," as Moreno put it, differently.
Moreno, who represents Wicker Park, Ukrainian Village and West Town, said he's "very excited about what's going on."
"I like the fact that it's more craft than just opening up a sports and beer place. It brings eccentric, craftness to the area," he said.
The alderman said Logan Square appears to be heading in the same direction as Wicker Park, which went through a similar boom a decade ago.
"You've kinda seen it level off [in Wicker Park], and I would say the same could happen here," Moreno said. "There's only so many that can make it. There's only so many that we want, too. That's why we have strong liquor control."
To Ramirez-Rosa, liquor control means imposing liquor and packaged goods license moratoriums on the major corridors in the 35th Ward. The freshman alderman, whose ward also represents Hermosa, Albany Park, Avondale and Irving Park, did just that when he was elected.
"I went through the entire 35th Ward map to make sure there was more meaningful community input," he said. "To me, it's about ensuring diversity of businesses in the corridor."
The goal, Ramirez-Rosa said, is to add a layer of transparency to the process.
"Should any business want to open a new bar or tavern, they just have to reach out to my office," he said. "If they do outreach with neighbors and local police, if they cross their T's and dot their I's, we will move ahead with lifting the moratorium."
Moreno, on the other hand, called moratoriums a "blunt instrument," saying, "I think we have more contemporary plans of protections."
He said he's seen more success with the deleterious impact ordinance, which allows the city to revoke the license of a business when it's committing illegal acts like not properly maintaining dumpsters.
Ald. Joe Moreno moved to have Wicker Park's Esso aka Seven Ultra Lounge closed permanently after a shooting there last year. [DNAinfo/Alisa Hauser]
As for gentrification, neither alderman specifically blamed the bar scene for pushing out longtime residents. But Ramirez-Rosa referred to the growing scene as "the canary in the coal mine."
"It's not what's causing the dangerous conditions. It's the symptom that shows there are deep societal issues. The thing we need to confront is the greedy developers," he said.
Ald. Scott Waguespack, whose 32nd Ward also represents part of Logan Square, wasn't available for an interview.