Like most music venues in Chicago and throughout the world, Tonic Room shut its doors last March and hasn't welcomed the general public back inside since. The extended break has been difficult for Donnie Biggins, a local musician and longtime promoter who has owned and booked Tonic Room since 2016. But the downtime has offered an opportunity to rethink his business—Biggins has spent the past 12 months making improvements to the space that he's been putting off for years, preparing for an eventual reopening. "It’s everything I’ve wanted to do with this space, and this just seemed like the right time to do it," Biggins says.
When the building at 2447 N Halsted Street reopens on April 21, it will shed the Tonic Room name in favor of a new title: Golden Dagger. The name was inspired by a dagger that was found inside of the walls of the building (which dates back to 1894) by one of its previous owners, possibly a relic of the location's past as a purported meeting place for a secret society known as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Shortly before the onset of the pandemic, Biggins' staff framed the dagger for him—it will be on display in the reopened venue.
The changes at Golden Dagger go beyond its new moniker, extending to a refreshed interior that has been almost entirely rebuilt. The space's awkward L-shaped stage has been replaced by a more conventional square platform, where bands will perform when live music eventually returns. A paved corridor adjacent to the neighboring Noodles in the Pot restaurant has been turned into a 30-seat patio. Bifold windows have been installed to provide spots for well-ventilated indoor seating.
When it reopens, Golden Dagger will primarily operate as a coffee bar serving Skylight Coffee—a local roastery founded by Tonic Room's sound engineer Matt DeWine and production manager Billy Giannopoulos that prepares its bean using an antique Italian roaster fueled by hickory wood. Opening at 7am every morning, drip coffee, espresso drinks and cold brew will be available throughout the day, joined by a selection of beer, cocktails and wine beginning at noon. Biggins has been an advocate of sobriety for many years ("being a bar owner, it’s been difficult," he says), so he's making sure that the non-alcoholic options are plentiful, offering kombucha, mocktails and non-alcoholic craft beer.
I like to say it’s a rebrand recovery plan.
The space also includes a small market stocked with local goods, including Brown Line Candles, growlers of Skylight Coffee cold brew and records and tapes by Chicago artists. Biggins is hoping to drive a lot of to-go business, but he'll provide limited indoor seating and seats on the patio for anyone who wants to stick around. "I’ve always wanted to have a place where writers, musicians and artists are always congregating to hang out during the day, kind of like a Greenwich Village thing in the ’60s," Biggins says.
For now, serving drinks and selling local goods will be Golden Dagger's focus, but these new offerings will eventually compliment concerts and live performances. "When music does return, that will be our livelihood, we’re a music venue first," Biggins explains. "There are just even more reason to enjoy the space during the daytime."
To that end, Biggins hired Femifest founder Zoey Victoria as Golden Dagger's new music curator back in February. A fixture of Chicago's DIY music scene who is involved with the local chapter of the Union of Musicians and Allied Workers, Victoria will book acts at Golden Dagger, giving Biggins more bandwidth to focus on his job as talent buyer for FitzGerald's Nightclub in Berwyn.
While there aren't likely to be any live performances on the calendar until late summer or early fall, Golden Dagger will launch a new streaming series called Local Support that depicts two artists trading songs and stories. The first edition premieres on Golden Dagger's Facebook and YouTube pages on April 15, featuring Nashville singer-songwriter Katy Kirby and Philadelphia indie-pop trio Another Michael. Moving forward, new editions of Local Support will stream every other Thursday.
"I like to say it’s a rebrand recovery plan," Biggins says about his decision to rename the Lincoln Park venue, referencing a song by local singer-songwriter Zango the Third. Thankfully, the demise of Tonic Room isn't another depressing permanent closure—instead, the venue's rebirth as Golden Dagger is a chance to adapt to the times while preserving a storied local haunt.
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