The New York Times

Life After Dark, Plain and Fancy

As Chicago's commuters head home, neighborhood restaurants, clubs and bars wake up

Dusk comes quickly to downtown Chicago, where the skyscrapers and office towers trap the slanting afternoon sun in narrow canyons, and soon cast long evening shadows over the lakefront. But even as the light fades from the Loop, and commuters begin to desert the city for the suburbs, the rest of Chicago is just switching on.

The soul of the city is in its neighborhoods, the patchwork of ethnic, racial, and workingclass communities that tumble away from the center. The best restaurants and the best clubs are found beyond the circle of the elevated rail tracks that define the Loop, and a good place to begin the night is Bucktown, a near West Side working-class enclave that, over the last decade, has become the latest province of the trendy and moneyed. At the corner of West Wabansia and Honore Streets is Club Lucky, a former American Legion hall nearly lost among the tiny shingle-sided houses and prewar duplexes that, one by one, investors are turning into fashionable urban redoubts.

Just 10 minutes from the Loop by taxi, Club Lucky is a noisy after-dark refuge for an eclectic crowd of stockbrokers, artists, writers and neighborhood regulars. Many who come here know one another and the conversation runs heavily toward Chicago politics and the latest films and theater. The dim lounge is a carefully contrived celebration of the 1950's: polished black Formica-top bar with its rows of stainless steel cocktail shakers and facing Naugahyde banquettes. The house specialty is the martini, and a separate menu offers six versions, ranging from the Killer (gin or vodka, no vermouth) to the Black martini (vodka and Chambord with a lemon twist). The martinis are $6, and patrons can choose from among 13 brands of vodka and 6 gins. A jukebox in the corner is well-stocked with 50's favorites, including lots of Frank Sinatra and big-band jazz. In the back, there is a 120-seat restaurant serving Italian-American fare, and food is also served at the bar.