It’s snowing, the wind is almost howling and the frozen slush on the sidewalk makes even booted feet ache. You spy a corner joint up ahead—one of those old-timey shot-gun places with just a hint of light in the windows, but not so old-timey it looks like age was applied with a trowel. This place looks like the real thing, an honest-to-God Chicago corner bar that must have honest-to-God drinks and a bar stool where you can both drink up and dry out.
You run across Armitage toward Weegee’s (3659 W. Armitage Ave.), pass through the door and a curtain blocking the cold to greet an interior filled with candlelight, jazz and what must be proof of a merciful God: endless bottles reflected back in the mirrors of an Art Deco altar to distilled spirits.
This is the place. Dark blue walls, dark blue jazz, black-and-white photos of crime and the preferred vices of 1930s New York. A long dark wood bar gleams as a bartender reads a paper, lights candles, cleans and assesses the new arrival, all at the same time. He says, “Hi.” He knows your name. He knows who you’re here to see; he’ll get him. He’ll get you coffee while he’s at it. “Sorry about the wait. Alex will be right with you. Do you want to take a look at the cocktails?” he asks.
The cocktail menu reads like the prop list for a film noir. You look around, catch sight of your shambolic self in the mirror, lose hope. Dames should look over the rim of their manhattan at you. Bogart should be glowering over the sidecar. Instead, it’s just you, minutes before Weegee’s opens for the night, shabbily dressed and damp. You disappoint yourself with your sheer lack of moxie or criminal urges or whatever it is that a reporter in the movie version of your life would have in spades.
Black coffee appears on the bar. And then a cardboard pint carton of half-and-half. You look up and Weegee’s owner Alex Huebner in jeans and a sweatshirt.
“I learned from other bar owners some bar philosophy,” says Huebner. “It’s your third place. Not your home, not your work—it’s your tap, your barbershop, your hairsalon—somewhere you go to interact with your neighbors. Your comfort zone. That’s one of our core values: a high-end cocktail bar that’s also your neighborhood bar.”
When Huebner found this place, he immediately said no to investing in it. A few years later, his wife talked him into buying it anyway, fixing it up and making it into the kind of bar they’d want to spend their time in. There are no TVs, no kitsch, and very little decorations except old photographs.
Though Huebner restored the building back to its original 1906 shabby splendor, it’s not a theme-park old-timey bar. And it doesn’t sport a single fake-Irish-pub map, harp or other flotsam that collects dust at every other “neighborhood bar” in Chicago.
What makes Weegee’s unique is that it’s not trying to be anything it isn’t.
Huebner lives in the neighborhood buying a house with his wife in 2000. After years of bartending, it was “time for me to move on. Own my own place. Having been a resident, I said I’d fire my real estate guy if he showed me this place—that’s how rough this corner was. Another guy bought it. Maybe two years later, it’s back up for sale. My wife pushed for this space. (We opened in) the fall of 2005. Now, with so many new businesses moving in, I’m the old guy.”
He’s the greybeard of the block, but also of the newly resurgent artisanal cocktail trend. “I love being this far West. Out here, we avoided what I’d call the new cocktail scene. The drink-making philosophy is our core—we’re not polluted by ‘Tales of the Cocktail’.”
He adds that he knows a comment like that will ruffle some feathers, but doesn’t care. He mentions that Robert, the bartender (now back at his post, and returned to the hypnotic cleaning/candles/paper juggling act) also tends bar at the Clipper. “They always get a shout-out from us.”
Other then that brief flash of fraternal goodwill, it doesn’t sound as if he sees a lot of real similarity—or competition—from the trendy bars farther East. “This is just a place to sit and chat with your neighbors,” he says. “We were creating a space that we would like to drink in, and the customer base likes the same stuff we do, lucky for us.”
Huebner reminisces about how they finally hit the right combination of unpretentious neighborhood service and a real respect for cocktails and their ingredients.
“It was easy to do because we like old spaces,” he says. “All the elements have been here, we just cleaned them up or refurbished them a bit. Slowly, it fell into place. Weegee: historical figure from the period, and one of my favorite photographers. Fits in with our traditional way of serving beer and spirits, all of which are locally sourced and produced. This is like the Second Rennaissance: First it was craft beer, now it’s distilleries. Started out with a few boutique brands, there were a few local distillers, and now new ones are opening.”
Bar philosophy merges into neighborhood philosophy. No longer the Wild West, Weegee’s corner spot on Armitage and Lawndale sits in a neighborhood still troubled by possible school closings, vacant storefronts and some crime. Many in Logan Square had their first experience at Weegee’s during one of the many fundraisers, meetings or other socially conscious shindigs Huebner hosts.
This, too, gets hardboiled down to basics by Huebner, who says, simply: “Before I owned a business, I was never a community activist, but once you own a liquor license—especially a liquor license—you’re seen differently, and have to hold up to a higher standard.”
They’re currently trying to raise up to $10,000 for the elementary school, donating their time and the space for roughly 30 other community projects, dispelling rumors from behind the bar, keeping an eye on the neighborhood.
Weegee’s is not the Magic Kingdom of Booze. It’s not a Universal Studios movie ride through Ye Olde Chicago. There isn’t a single seedy henchman or malevolent girl-gone-bad in the place, and pretensions of that kind will probably get you laughed at by the self-styled pillar of the community and his extremely efficient barkeep.
Editor’s note: This article has been updated to correct the spelling of Huebner’s name, which in an earlier version appeared as “Wuebner.”