They've done it again. From the guys behind Moe's Cantina and John Barleycorn comes the crown jewel of their River North nightlife empire: John Barleycorn River North (149 W. Kinzie). Last week John Barleycorn opened its doors to sports loving young professionals looking for a trendy alternative to Public House, Rockit, and Stout as the best place to be seen watching the game in River North.
This weekend I got to see it in full force as the new hot spot was opened to the general public after a soft opening on Wednesday. I first visited the bar on Friday night. Upon first impression, I was blown away at how big the bar was. The 15,000 square foot bar occupies a space that is even larger than its next door neighbor Moe's Cantina (which itself often seems too big). Visitors to John Barleycorn will find the first floor familiar as it preserves the nautical theme present at the Lincoln Park and Wrigleyville locations. Just as at its other locations, patrons enter through heavy brass door bearing the iconic port hole. Model ships are prominently displayed all along the top shelves of both of the first floor's expansive bars. The dark-wood finishes throughout contribute to the space's beauty giving it a more classic, masculine feel than its River North rivals. The most blaring negative about the first floor is that it lacks booths similar to Moe's, forcing everyone to sit at high tops.
That said, the first floor is just an appetizer. The real meat of John Barleycorn River North is only discovered after trucking up a flight of stairs. The space occupies the exact same footprint of sister bar, Moe's Cantina with one exception, its nearly 3,500 square feet larger. This was achieved by making the 2nd floor run the entire length of the footprint, rather than just half the length seen at Moe's. The second floor has cavernous ceilings capped off by a massive skylight window that looks very similar to the one at Studio Paris. If its retractable it could be this location's answer its the Lincoln Park patio/beer garden. Large booths span the walls along the entire 2nd floor. A raised VIP section is located above the dance floor near the DJ booth giving a little more prominence to larger groups who wish to rent the space out for bottle service. On Saturday night former NFL quarterback Donovon McNabb was seen occupying one of these booths in the company of friends.
What makes Barleycorn River North my new favorite place to hang in River North? Great ascetics. Not only are the bar's 72 TVs well positioned along every wall ensuring there isn't a bad seat in the house, the wait-staff is smoking hot. From what I've seen in my two visits this weekend the staff at Barleycorn is even better looking than the bombshell original staff that Moe's had when it first opened about a year and a half ago. Beyond the waitresses and bartenders, eye candy seems to be sprinkled everywhere throughout the crowd. The views are good even by River North's lofty standards. The food was enjoyable also. In a most pleasant surprise the ribs and wings were even good enough that I didn't find myself missing my beloved meat skewers from next door.
There is no question that Barleycorn's owners are doubling down on their bet in River North. It remains to be seen if the new Barleycorn will cannibalize Moe's Cantina. Barleycorn is already a significantly better place to watch the game and its upstairs blows away anything going on at Moe's. Moe's may soon be relegated from its first tier status to being known as the place serving Barleycorn's rejects. The manager and bartenders I spoke to seemed to think that Barleycorn will draw more foot traffic to the corner of LaSalle and Kinzie, boosting the attendance at both. I'm not convinced that the area is big enough to support both Barleycorn and Moe's on the average week nights to support the causal crowd looking to catch a Bulls game or, if the lockout ever ends, the Hawks. Walk into Moe's on a week night and it typically seems like a ghost-town even when there are 50 to 100 people inside watching the game. Add a larger bar with better TVs and this problem will likely only be exacerbated.
Despite its great promise, Barleycorn will be confronted with a few obvious challenges. For one, how do they plan to fill this place night in and night out? The bar plans to offer a creative solution to this problem by offering a "neighbor card" for River North residents. This card will function both as a discount card (25%) and as a "line pass" of sorts to entice their weekday regulars to come back on the weekends. Secondly, they must optimize the entrance process. While at brunch there Sunday I heard stories of people who had to wait between 15-30 minutes to get in. When they finally came in they found a mostly empty bar. This was an issue management never got quite right at Moe's. The bar is so big there is absolutely no reason why there should ever be more than a minimal wait to get in. If I could offer advice to the door staff it would be to not try to make the place seem overly exclusive like they attempted to do (and failed) at Moe's. There are simply too many good options in River North to justify waiting in line for this place (no matter how cool it is) and the doormen owe it to the army of 21 bartenders and dozens of waitresses waiting inside to get people inside, spending money as quickly as possible.
Although its been open less than a week, Barleycorn already feels like an institution. The owners achieved this by successfully taping into the nostalgia held by its now grown up patrons who once spent many hazy nights drinking themselves into a stupor at its Lincoln Park and Wrigleyville name-shakes during college breaks. As one who actually hates Barleycorn Lincoln Park and has long preferred Moe's Wrigleyville location to Barleycorn I was extremely surprised to actually like this place as much as I did. I found myself raving about it to everyone who I talked all weekend, including the entire waitstaff at the late night bar we went to after leaving on Friday, Social 25. On Saturday I will still talking everyone's ears off about it at dinner with friends and somehow I found myself back there on Sunday for brunch.
Thus it is with supreme confidence that I name John Barleycorn River North a "wheelhouse" destination (The Mayor Daily's most prestigious distinction). Go check it out, you'll thank me later.