HUMBOLDT PARK — About two years after an abrupt closure and legal battle with the previous owner, Chicago staple The California Clipper is set to reopen to the public Thursday with the same look and feel as the original.
The Orbit Group, a new hospitality group that opened Italian restaurant Segnatore across from the street, spent the past year resurrecting the beloved bar at 1002 N. California Ave. The result is almost identical to the previous iteration, save for a lounge area that took over coffee shop C.C. Ferns’ old space and a top-of-the-line sound system.
Its signature red lights and cozy vinyl booths have not changed, nor have its old wooden bar — details people have come to associate with the tavern.
“We really wanted to stay true to its history and give it a little bit of love without changing the ambiance and how it feels,” said Briana Martin, of Siren Betty Design, the firm tapped to overhaul the space.
Perhaps the biggest change, and one audiophiles will appreciate: The Orbit Group completely overhauled the bar’s outdated sound system with help from sound engineers Chris Grabowski and Herman Chigrin. The bar is now outfitted with the “Ferrari” of sound systems, including Tannoy speakers, Grabowski said.
With its acoustic paneling, the bar’s lounge area, which is where C.C. Ferns used to be, is a listening room specifically designed for enjoying drinks — and music.
“Those speakers are in Abbey Road studios. Those speakers are what they mixed ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ on. So if you come in here, and you listen to that record, you should be able to get as close to possible as the moment they were making it,” Grabowski said.
As it did before the pandemic, The Clipper will regularly host live music. Bands and performers will grace the stage twice a week if the pandemic allows, said Jesse Sandvik, the bar’s music supervisor. The hospitality group also plans to bring back monthly burlesque shows and add other regular events to its calendar, like drag king shows.
As for drinks, the hospitality group is keeping it simple and offering an array of classic cocktails like The Matador and The Cardinale, as well as staples catering to the community, like Puerto Rico’s beer of choice, Medalla Light, Polish drinks and the Chicago handshake, a shot of Malort and an Old Style.
Just because the Clipper has been updated doesn’t mean it’s suddenly a craft cocktail bar, assistant manager Marta Jean Evans said. Quite the opposite is true: The hospitality group aims to pay homage to the history of the bar and the fast-changing neighborhood with a menu that feels familiar, she said.
“We’re trying to make sure we’re being respectful to this neighborhood that’s been here for a long time that is honestly being gentrified so quickly, and we want to make sure that we’re not just snowballing on that,” Jean Evans said. “We want to make sure that the neighborhood knows how community oriented we’re going to be, and how respectful we’re going to be of the bricks they laid before us.”
The rebirth of the Clipper comes after a rocky two years for the bar.
Previous owner Brendan Sodikoff, who owns several popular restaurants and bars in Chicago, including Au Cheval and Green Street Smoked Meats, abruptly shut down the Clipper and neighboring coffee shop C.C. Ferns in May 2020, saying he couldn’t make rent because of the pandemic.
Emails provided by the building’s landlord, Gino Battaglia, showed Sodikoff wanted out of the lease.
Battaglia filed a lawsuit against Sodikoff, accusing him of skipping out on the rent and damaging the bar in the process. The parties reached a settlement in the case last March, making way for the Orbit Group to step in and bring the bar back to life.
From day one, the Orbit Group has been chiefly interested in maintaining the integrity of the tavern, which has been in operation since the 1930s but has hosted live music and other forms of entertainment since at least 1914, when it was known as the L.L. Freeman Theater, according to the hospitality group.
In upgrading the space, the Orbit Group crew restored the Clipper’s sign to resemble the mid-century 19th century clipper ship it was designed for. It took the boards off the front windows and replaced them with curtains, though the team does not plan to keep the curtains open during service. The bar will always have that dark red glow, no matter the time of night.
“We tried to create a space we all wanted to come into. We tried to bring it back to its original spirit and soul as much as possible, and we hope that everyone can feel the spirit inside of it and feel the drive,” Jean Evans said.
There’s only one thing left to do, she said.
“Let’s have some fun, man. Let’s throw a party.”
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