A diamond in the rough … er, north, The Redhead Piano Bar is a favorite with locals, tourists and anyone from the ages of 21 – 81. More and more, fans of a cocktail and group sing-a-long’s are discovering this local landmark. Owner Art Bryan recalls a time his stretch of Ontario Street was more of an expressway feeder ramp.
“We were always a destination because there wasn’t much here,” he remembers. “But now there are many changes, more people, foot traffic and half a dozen rental and condo buildings have gone up.”
Originally the manager at the Chicago Chop House, he would recommend The Redhead as a unique place to have a cocktail and enjoy a tune. Eventually, he found himself more interested in the piano bar than prime rib. “I fell in love with the place,” Art recalls.
It didn’t take long before he struck up a working relationship and started consulting on operations. It turned into a full time gig in the summer of 1994, and then Art eventually bought out his original partners in early 1999 to become sole owner.
Originally a row house, Art estimates the structure dates back to the late 1800’s. After purchasing the building next door, he expanded for overflow and to offer a private VIP event space. Had he ever thought of a sweeping renovation in the original building?
“When you know something is right, you don’t change it much,” Art reflects. “Well, we did tweak things just a little bit over time.”
It’s hard to argue. Descend the front stairs and it’s as if you have uncovered a secret speakeasy. One has visions of flapper dresses, tommy guns and bathtub gin. Step inside and the feel is vintage and cozy without being kitsch. It’s easy to see why The Redhead has regulars who have been returning for over 20 years.
To adjust with the times and night scene, Art focused on diversifying the music. “In our first three years we concentrated on standards, but then we increased it to include upbeat Pop and Rock hits. A wide range of music made the club more eclectic and it paid off.”
There are always calls from national acts who want to play, but they never bump the regulars. Entertainers include Michael “Stu” Stoinski who plays on Friday nights and Tom Linsk and Lisa McClowry, a fantastic duo, who have been tickling the Redhead ivories for over 19 years.
No matter the musician, it’s all about the atmosphere. Art has adopted a mantra: Come for the music, but stay for the party.
Sounds like a plan.
Any strange phenomena or ghosts?
Surprisingly, no! But during construction at the new building, we unearthed an old water tunnel. Craftmanship was amazing, and we hoped Capone’s Vault might be there! No great mysteries, trap doors or hidden tunnels either… Believe me, I have looked!
Any Unforgettable Stories?
I was not planning on being at the bar after flying back from Las Vegas. The phone rang – and I remember this clearly, it was a Sunday in July of 2003. “Art, you gotta’ get down here.” Playing Motown, feeling no pain, was the piano man himself: Billy Joel.
A request came from the crowd: Play Piano Man! Billy actually apologized for the song.
Another one: Billy, can I take your picture? Sure, for a 100,000 grand!
Billy played for 45 minutes without missing a beat, thanked the crowd, and vanished into the night.
Other celebrities or famous folks who have played or visited?
Seth MacFarlane has been in to play some Frank Sinatra.
Dennis Quaid, in full Great Balls of Fire mode, has played here (Quaid played famous singer Jerry Lee Lewis in the film of the same title).
A lot of sports players have been in; players, coaches, Chicago and visiting teams.
What’s a fun fact most people would not think about?
Many people have met their significant other at The Redhead. And many people have actually popped the question and gotten engaged here!