The Daily Herald

At Club Lucky, Class and Martinis Go Hand In Hand

On a scene practically swamped with retro style, it's nice to find at least one bar that favors cool over kitsch. Club Lucky is that kind of bar.

A little dim, a little slick, but altogether cozy, Club Lucky is a reminder of the not too distant era when swank was chic. But where other nostalgic nightspots are "Space Age Bachelor Pad," Club Lucky is "Birth of the Cool," a testament that retro need not be reduced to cheesy-puff pop culture. More stylish and less self-conscious than its Bucktown/Wicker Park counterparts, Club Lucky has been fixture in this neighborhood for more than 50 years.

Shuttered from the mid-'80s until new owners Bobby Paladino Jr. and Jim Higgins took over in 1990, a new and improved Club Lucky reopened a year later. Updated for the '90s, it reemerged with its 1940s sensibility and name intact. "We liked the name," says Higgins. "We thought it had sex appeal."

During the week, the lounge is filled with locals. On weekends they're joined by movers and shakers. Casual diners linger in the lounge only until their table is ready, but Lucky regulars know better. "The dining room is nice," says Tony, who usually joins his co-workers in the lounge on Friday night. "But honestly, we spend a lot of time at the bar. "It's a nice way to tie up the week," the 32-year-old says. "Really, everyone knows who you are."

While friendliness may have contributed to its popularity, Club Lucky, which predated the current martini bar craze by several years, built its reputation in part on a classic cocktail. Shaken, according to Higgins, "until your hand freezes to the shaker" and garnished with a hand-stuffed blue cheese or anchovy olive, Killer Martinis are a Club Lucky trademark. "We make the frou-frou drinks, but we're known for the classic." says co-owner Jim Higgins of Lucky's signature martini, which fellow restaurateurs recently ranked as the best in Chicago.

The room oozes cool, from the hint of neon reflected on the barrel ceiling to the gleaming antique martini shakers made of polished stainless steel that line the shelves behind the bar. Textured paneling the color of celery covers the walls; red Naugahyde booths line them. Every booth is full. At the black Formica bar, every seat is taken; scattered among the rocks and highball glasses are a half dozen half-empty martinis. Caterina Novotny, one of the Friday night regulars, likes the unpretentious ambiance. It has a very neighborhood feel to it," says Novotny, 29. Located outside the main nightlife hub, the club is refreshingly free from the wannabees who flock to the trendier spots. "It's definitely a good meeting place," she says.

And not just for drinks. Directly behind the bar is the 35-seat Club Room, a private dining area. A few steps away is the main dining room. Like the lounge, it is decorated in red, black and green with a clean, simple design and glass block windows framed by neoconstructivist drapes designed by a local artist. The brick walls feature a lozenge design at wainscoting level, and the light fixtures suspended from the original tin ceiling resemble satellites in orbit. "It has a great atmosphere," says Ken McIntyre, "and it's one of the original martini bars Chicago." On his first visit, McIntyre says they chucked out the rug and started dancing in the aisles. After a few martinis, McIntyre joined them. "I never forgot the place," says the thirtysomething from Chicago. "And I've been coming back ever since."