Jim Stephens is hiding when we greet him at his under-construction spot at Clark and Argyle Streets. The former Chicago Eagle manager and bartender has been working around the clock to open his new Andersonville business in the spot of former gay dive bar Clark’s on Clark. But curious passersby keep interrupting his work. “I’ll be there from 8 to 3am and only get an hour and a half of work done,” he says. So we move away from the windows to talk with Stephens about the grand reopening of the Chicago Eagle—or, rather, Winston’s Cafe.
A Chicagoland native, Stephens, 44, was a cabinetmaker by day (the new space boasts his beautiful craftsmanship) while by night working at the Chicago Eagle, a fetish bar owned by International Mr. Leather founder Chuck Renslow. In 2000, Stephens quit his day job to pour drinks and manage the Eagle full-time. When Renslow announced in late ’06 that he would shutter the Eagle and expand his next-door bathhouse, Man’s Country, Stephens came up with a plan. He and Renslow jointly bought the rest of the block south of Man’s Country, which included Clark’s on Clark and Eagle Leathers Body Piercing & Tattoo, while Stephens alone planned to buy the Clark’s on Clark business and reopen it as the new Chicago Eagle.
But when Stephens attempted to purchase Clark’s on Clark (and its liquor license), he says he learned Clark’s had been operating without a lease for years (though it’s illegal to have a liquor license without a lease). The bar closed in April 2007, and Stephens spent 2008 renovating the place and, this past February, applied for a liquor license. He was denied.
According to Stephens, some neighbors objected to both Renslow and his tenant Eagle Leathers. Stephens met with some of the neighbors and persuaded them to send letters to help appeal his denied request for a license, but another problem came to light: Renslow is a convicted felon, and thus cannot own a liquor license. “The city assumed I was the new guy who was going to open this bar for Chuck Renslow,” Stephens says, emphasizing that Renslow is not affiliated with the new venture. (Renslow confirms: “When the Eagle closed, it was in Man’s Country’s building. I determined I wanted nothing more to do with liquor licenses or bars.”)
After Stephens convinced the city his business wasn’t connected to Renslow, he discovered yet another complication. Although Clark’s closed more than two years ago, the city hadn’t revoked its license until May 19 of this year; after a revocation, a location cannot have a liquor license for one year and one day. “That, I thought, was a little bit crappy,” Stephens says. “It takes two and a half years to revoke a liquor license?”
Knee-deep in debt, Stephens soldiered on. “I was at a loss,” he says. “I had to open something.” Enter Winston’s Cafe. Named for Stephens’s English setter, the café opens the week of Monday 16 as a coffeehouse with soup and sandwiches, free Wi-Fi and an unusual niche: It aims to be open 24 hours. “Friends of mine say, ‘But the carpets roll up in this area at ten o’clock,’ ” Stephens says. “And I’m like, ‘Yeah, that’s because nobody’s open past that.’ ” While the floor-to-ceiling windows and exposed beams and brick seem ideally suited to the new endeavor, Stephens threw his new barstools into storage and invested in café-friendly seating. And he might use the would-be back room for live music.
But don’t count the Eagle out just yet. “It’s always been my dream to own my own bar,” Stephens says. “A year ago, I thought I was much closer to reaching that goal than I am today. As for Winston’s Cafe, it’s too soon to tell how this is going to turn out. Who knows, I may find a way to have both.”
Winston’s Cafe (5001 N Clark St, 773-728-0050) opens the week of Monday 16.