Created March 20, 2001
Beer & Wine Garden
3258 N. Sheffield Ave. (3300N, 1000W)
Chicago, IL 60657
On that first warm day of the year in Chicago that occurs sometime between March and July, nothing beats the beer garden at Sheffield's. The bar also features an impressive selection of beer (and wine), "barbeque in the back room," expressionist artwork, and classic Chicago architecture augmented by recent renovations and additions. When I was asked recently by a reporter at ChicagoScene.com, "If you could only go to one bar for the rest of your life, what would it be?" For me, the answer is Sheffield's. The beer garden can get very crowded and, even on colder days during prime time, a line to get in stretches down the block. In either case, you just need to get there earlier.
Since 1980, Sheffield's is located at the southwest corner of Sheffield and School, across from the real estate office that was once the teenage haven, Medusa's. Sheffield's is housed within the base of a classic Chicago, brick three-flat with a tastefully brown and yellow painted turret. A small wooden sign with signature tree humbly advertises "Sheffield's." Mind the step as you approach a pair of bouncers that card anyone and everyone. After 10:00pm, expect a long line wrapped around the side as well as an annoying $1 cover charge just to drink beer (no live music). Given its proximity to Wrigley Field, Sheffield's attracts a fairly drunken crowd on game days but I've seen them turn away those who have been "over-served," which sets a good example for what more bars in this city should be doing.
Step through the plate glass door and you'll find a long wooden bar that runs half the length of the south wall. If you're lucky enough to snag one of the high-backed wooden barstools, you'll have a good vantage point for perusing the 24 beers on tap, all of which are microbrews and interesting seasonals with the "macro" Pabst Blue Ribbon for $2.50 as the only exception. Pitchers are available for those that are less than 8% in alcohol, so that you don't get hammered on "Two Brothers Bare Tree Weiss Wine," a beer or "barley wine" with 11% alcohol and the best thing to come out of suburban Warrenville since the Cantera 30-screen AMC movie theater was built. Sheffield's also stocks over 100 in bottles, with multiple selections available from Abita, Bear Republic, Lindeman's, Paulaner, Sam Adams, Samuel Smith, Sierra Nevada, and Unibroue. Only Hopleaf, Quenchers and Map Room serve more, though it was Sheffield's that was the first in the area to offer Bell's and Anchor Steam, and also serves a cask-conditioned ale that is poured with a hand pump (the selection is rotated monthly). Sadly, gone are the Sheffield's home brew (a variety of seasonal ales very similar to Bell's, the latter of which is no longer distributed in Chicago), the "Joseph Sheffield Memorial Beer Society," and the "Bad Beer of the Month" special. If you're somewhat intimidated by the selection and unsure of what you want, just ask the bartenders if it's not too crowded. Half a dozen wines by the glass are also available for the ladies. Added bonus: as you gaze up beyond the plethora of tap handles, at the old-fashioned lights and the wooden Sheffield's sign above the bar, note the upside down picture of Joseph Sheffield himself, one of Chicago's early train moguls.
Elsewhere in the front room, a red banquette offers the best spot in which to observe incoming talent, a large wooden birdhouse hangs over two one-seater bathrooms (of which the men's toilet occasionally flushes without clogging) and below a red-painted tin ceiling with old-fashioned wooden ceiling fans. There is also a comfortable seating area with low-slung wooden tables, towards the back, part of which is an elevated enclave that lies below Jeremy Turner's notable artwork: a painting of a singer with exposed muscles, veins and arteries performing to a horrified audience, influenced perhaps by a combination of Francis Bacon and Salvador Dali – interesting, yet disturbing. I once had an entertaining evening trading stories with a few friends in this part of the bar. In return for my recounting my "Road to Hell" story, I was told a friend's story of how he got divorced, spent $5,000 in four months purely on drinking, passed out three times and fell down the front staircase at the same bar, and got into six fights (four with friends). Let his life serve as a warning to others. If "talking" isn't your bag, you'll find SportsCenter on a few TVs strategically placed around the room.
Just beyond the bar is a portal set into the south wall that leads out to the legendary beer garden at Sheffield's. This space is routinely voted #1 for best beer garden in the city, largely due to its shady cottonwood trees, cascading vines along the brick walls formed by Sheffield's and the building next door, and numerous, highly sought after picnic tables. An additional bar was added against the north wall of the garden, so the waitress service has dramatically improved. The best time to get a table in the beer garden is between Monday and Wednesday night, and afternoons on the weekend. Otherwise, when the weather rises above 65ºF, expect to stand and be continuously jostled by brusque waitstaff and an ebb and flow of patrons that doesn't stop until they close the outdoor patio at 11:00pm.
Through a narrow passage in the southwest corner of the main room back on the inside of Sheffield's, you'll find an additional space with more tables, an additional bar (no taps), and the newly installed kitchen. While we miss the fireplace, pool table and couches they once had back there, these have been replaced by the new specialty at Sheffield's: barbeque. Both Memphis (sweet) and Texas (spice) style baby back ribs are served in half and full slabs, and other platters include the "Half a Smoked Chicken" and BBQ brisket. They also have a variety of sandwiches, including pulled pork, as well as salads. Check out the whole menu here. On my first visit for barbeque, my yearning remained unfulfilled as I ordered after 10:00pm, only to learn that the barbeque was cut off at that hour. The chicken sandwich I wound up with was good but nothing to write home about. I look forward to the ribs upon future patronage...
The back room at Sheffield's also features Reading Under the Influence, a self-described reading series, "developed by a group of Chicago writers who happen to like drinking." RUI is held on the first Wednesday of every month and feature writers selected from 750-word submissions to read their work as well as lines written by other authors based on a pre-selected theme. Then trivia ensues. Also at Sheffield's, Thursday nights feature open mic comedy at 9:00pm (get there at 8:00pm if you're the next Andy Kaufman).
What was once an unused an unused, gravelly space in the rear of the beer garden is now an addition I call the "back, back room" at Sheffield's. This area features an additional bar, cocktail tables and larger bathrooms that replaced the ones formerly in the original back room. I'll take the addition of five urinals and a stall over the one-seater prone to clogs, but the urinals are located very close together...
"If the average Chicago bar had franchise possibilities, then Sheffield's would be the candidate."
– Shecky's Bar, Club & Lounge Guide 2002
The crowd at Sheffield's is as you would guess: primarily a younger crowd that packs themselves in, amongst a few "seasoned veterans" who enjoy the scene from seating obtained by having the wisdom to get there early. Regarding the latter, your friends at Shecky's issue this warning: "Sheffield's is one of those haunts that houses a species far more irritating than the everyday, average, North American frat boy. It's warm, liquor moistened fungus known as the overpaid, under laid, beer, wine and spirit know-it-all who rolls his eyes at you if you ask for a blended Scotch." Whether you're just there for a few beers in winter or jump into the beer garden scene at the height of prime time on Saturday night, Sheffield's is one of the best bars in the city. We here at the Chicago Bar Project can especially appreciate the classic Chicago neighborhood feel at Sheffield's that has persevered through the years. If you like Sheffield's, you might also like their sister bars, Raven's (Lincoln Park) and Silver Cloud (Wicker Park), both under the same ownership. To join Sheffield's mailing list, or for other information, check out the Sheffield's website. Now, another pitcher of PBR barkeep!
~ Have a good story relating to this bar? E-mail it to me. ~
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written by Sean Parnell
The formerly "indestructible" feline who preferred catnip martinis