BUCKTOWN — The floors, bar top and ceiling may be new — but longtime employees say the spirit of Gallery Cabaret, an art-filled dive bar and performance venue tucked away on a residential street in Bucktown, hasn’t changed a bit.
Closed by the pandemic in March 2020, Gallery Cabaret, 2020 N. Oakley Ave., is finally reopening its doors Nov. 26.
“This has always been a home away from home,” bartender Tyger Aguilar said. “A place to heal, a place to come back and back and be with your second family or community.”
Owner Mike Strandberg wanted to wait until a COVID-19 vaccine was readily available and a certain threshold of people had received it before welcoming back patrons and performers.
In the meantime, Strandberg has overseen extensive renovations at Gallery Cabaret, known to many as the Gallery. He’s remodeled the floor and ceiling, brought in new beer coolers, spruced up the bathrooms and more, funded in part by grants from the state.
“This floor was just messed up,” he said. “It just started fading. It was horrible.”
Strandberg also installed a new bar top, replacing the old Formica one that had a slight but noticeable slant, employees said.
“People would put their drink here; it would fall right off,” Strandberg said.
Now, Strandberg and devoted staff are gearing up to welcome back what they hope will be a steady stream of musicians, comedians and, of course, patrons.
“It’s like a phoenix rising from the ashes,” said longtime sound tech Garrett Lane.
Since it was opened in 1988 by Strandberg’s father, Kenny Strandberg, the Gallery has been a gathering place for all sorts of performers, with the barrier to perform low or nonexistent. It’s also made a point to feature paintings and other visual work from local artists on its walls.
Over the years, the bar has become known for its open mic nights and wide range of performances, including early shows from now famous Chicago-area acts like Liz Phair and the Smashing Pumpkins.
The mission of supporting art for art’s sake remains the same, employees said.
“We want to promote the individual artists, visiting artists,” Lane said. “And we want to promote the general appreciation of the arts and the music, the poetry, the comedy, everything.”
The Gallery plans to slowly start booking shows again as staff get their footing and people return. Employees also hope to host private events and meetings.
“The artists and the musicians, they’re leaving messages on our phone,” bartender Juan Sanchez Jr. said. “They’re texting or direct messaging all of us. People are hungry, people are thirsty. … We want that to happen organically, instead of the push and pull, ‘We need you to play here. We need this to happen.'”
Like most businesses, the pandemic was tough for Gallery Cabaret, but it became even more difficult when Kenny Strandberg died in September 2020 at 82.
Last year, Gallery employees and customers spoke to Block Club about Strandberg’s legacy and impact on the Chicago music scene.
“I’ve seen on more than one occasion when bands had bad nights and didn’t really bring it, Kenny would pull out his wallet and add a $20 bill to their night’s pay,” manager Ethan Smeltzer said at the time. “He truly appreciated their art and effort.”
Strandberg was an “old-time Chicago bar owner” beloved by “outcasts” who found their way to his stage, said Justin Kaufmann, whose comedy troupe performed at the bar for years.
As staff members prepare to open the bar the day after Thanksgiving, Aguilar said it’s “bittersweet” to do so without Kenny Strandberg.
“Kenny’s not here with us for the reopening, but I think in a way he’s going to look in over us,” he said. “I’m definitely going to play a song or two for him, crack a Hamm’s.”
And whether it’s as a showcase for the arts or just a neighborhood watering hole, Mike Strandberg stressed everyone is welcome at the Gallery — well, almost everyone.
“The only thing that we’re really prejudiced against are a–holes. If you’re an a–hole, you’re not welcome in this place and we let you know, right? There’s the door,” he said, laughing.
Listen to “It’s All Good: A Block Club Chicago Podcast” here: