Schmoozing with the Stars

Special Features   Schmoozing with the Stars Local Chicago theatres add a bit of hospitality with hangouts where local artists, the casts of their shows, and patrons intermingle.
Front Bar_5_Photo credit Joshua Aaron Weinstein.jpg
Front Bar Joshua Aaron Weinstein

Grabbing a nip between acts is par for the course at a night in the theatre. And while most playhouses have a counter you can belly up to before the lights flash, some are taking refreshment to a whole new level.

“When people enter they should feel relaxed and comfortable and ready to have an evening of excitement,” says Amy Rubenstein, artistic director of Windy City Playhouse in Albany Park, which opened in 2015. Key to that experience is the theatre’s lobby, which is designed as a hip lounge. “Our bar is open to the public and we encourage the neighborhood to use us as their local late night stop,” relates Rubenstein.

With a mix of upholstered furniture, eye-catching lighting fixtures, and a bar clad in rough wood, Windy City’s lounge lobby combines a certain urban chic with that-place-around-the-corner ambiance. The drink program encompasses a respectable list of spirits, beer, and wine, and offers a handful of ever-changing specialty cocktails. “The post-show scene is very intimate and casual,” shares house manager, Nolan Breard. “We have music playing and dim the lights, and we really create a comfortable environment for audiences to hang out and have a drink and digest the show they’ve just seen. The cast will often stick around for a drink, which gives the audience a fun opportunity to interact with them and ask questions and discuss the production.”

Long-established Steppenwolf Theatre has upped its presence on Halsted Street with the recent debut of Front Bar. For hospitality expertise, the company turned to Boka Restaurant Group, the outfit behind such successful eateries as Balena and Girl & The Goat. The space was designed by Karen Herold of Studio K, which has created interiors for a number of restaurants in the city, including several Boka destinations.

Taking a cue from the company’s request for a space where its members could hang out, Herold opted for a look evocative of an artist’s loft. “We wanted everyone who walks in to feel more like they are at a party at someone’s home than a bar,” she explains. “So we designed plenty of shelves and bookcases to display elements that have personal meaning to the Steppenwolf crew and approached the furniture design as a more curated concept then a fully coordinated design.”

Kitted out with classic club chairs, a communal table, and comfy sofas with a vaguely mid-century modern look, Front Bar does project a knowingly informal appearance. And there’s a coffee bar right inside the door, with a case of caffeine-friendly eats. “There is a real lack of real coffee shops between Armitage and North Avenue on Halsted, and Front Bar is open during the day to fill this need,” notes Steppenwolf artistic director, Anna D. Shapiro. “Plus, Front Bar is already becoming a hangout for the artistic community during the day. Artists of many different theatres have been seen having production meetings, or working on lines during the day.”

While not intended as an out-and-out restaurant, Front Bar serves up more than the Swedish Fish and chocolate chip cookies. The menu includes a selection of salads, sandwiches, and individual pizzas. And between that, the beverages, and the ambiance, Front Bar is finding an audience. “As word of mouth has spread, we have continued to welcome more folks from the neighborhood and beyond,” reports general manager, Danielle Shindler. “We get a solid breakfast rush, a nice stream of folks throughout the day grabbing lunch or an afternoon latte. We see a big spike around the evening shows.” So, what are you drinking?