In the fall of 2006, Aaron Rodriguez felt very disconnected when he enrolled at the University of Chicago, where a small fraction of the student body is Black. So he built a network of friends among people he met on music message boards.
"A lot of the people I met there were a little bit older than me," he said in an interview from Nashville, Tennessee, where he returned after graduating. "A lot of the people I met there were surrogate older brothers and sisters to me. They kind of helped (introduce) me into Black Chicago."
He started dating a poet who introduced him to a number of actors and playwrights. She was the first to take him to Bar Louie, one block away from his dorm at the Shoreland Apartments, sneaking him in at first because he was under-age and later breaking up with him there. It became one of his haunts. "It was the type of networking that I wasn't necessarily going to get at the university," he said.
"It was so fortunate that I had that in my backyard," Rodriguez said. "There's an adjustment for Black students at the University of Chicago. It's got a very particular culture that may or may not always be very welcoming. I consider myself very fortunate that I was able to find a community outside of the university, and Bar Louie in Hyde Park was really instrumental in that."
Bar Louie opened its location at 5500 S. Shore Drive in 2003 after a two-year battle to get a liquor license. It closed this spring amid the coronavirus pandemic after a 17-year run and three months after its parent company filed for bankruptcy protection. (On April 27, the remaining locations were taken over by a venture capital firm.) Facebook users shared the Herald’s boilerplate announcement of its closing more than 1,500 times — a testament to the place it held in the popular imagination.
The bar and restaurant was one of the South Side’s few commercial gathering spots for young Black professionals and creatives in the 2000s, and one of the first chain restaurants to open and thrive in Hyde Park. Through its success, Bar Louie paved the way for other Black spaces and chains to open in the neighborhood.
Corey Richardson, a regular since its early days, recalled that the few bars operating in the neighborhood at the time, like the Cove or Jimmy's, were mom-and-pop operations, which predominated in the years before the arrival of more up-scale establishments like The Promontory or Virtue, places that could thrive on their brand or their owners’ reputations.
"If you wanted to go anywhere, you had to drive," Richardson said. "There was no scene in South Loop like there is now, so you had to drive downtown, out of the neighborhood, to do something. So when the Bar Louie opened in Hyde Park, it was like, 'OK, now we have a place where we can eat, we can drink. It's a chain, but it's not a corny chain. It's a cool place we can go, and it's a neighborhood spot for us.'"
In interviews, long-time customers recalled an overwhelmingly African American clientele from the professional and creative fields; Bar Louie attracted customers from all across the South Side.
"A Hyde Park Bar Louie, by virtue of the fact it was an establishment that everybody knew in a neighborhood that was adjacent to South Shore, Bronzeville, Hyde Park, etc., it became something like a destination,” Richardson said. “It was a place you could go where you didn't have to go all across town. … You knew that when you walked in there, you were going to see somebody, and it was always a good time.”
The space commanded collective ownership and responsibility; Richardson said there “was a certain sense of 'this is ours' that kept people from getting out of line.” Corporate types came from work in the Loop; actors and dancers came after rehearsals.
For Xavier Newbern, Bar Louie was a common watering hole after a day at the office or spending the day on the lakefront. He especially appreciated it as a place to meet Black women who also worked corporate jobs.
"I've been single from about the time I started going, and if you wanted to meet somebody who was professional and inner-urban, you could go to Bar Louie," he said. "I used to put on outfits — 'I'm going to Bar Louie tonight; it's going to be nice!' It never let you down."
The staff was friendly. TVs played sports. People gathered there for birthday parties. Guys’ and girls’ nights out closed the evenings there. A lot of people went alone.
Stacy Letrice, part of the Muntu Dance Theatre, started going to Bar Louie as a teenager with mentors — she noted that it became a lot cooler when one could go have a drink there later in the evening.
"A lot of times, the preface for going there was after a rehearsal, after a dance class, after a show. … It just felt very homey. It felt like a sense of community," she said. "Even if you didn't know the people there, as soon as you got there, it felt like you were at a hangout spot with your friends."
As many middle class African Americans spend their workday being the only nonwhite person at the office, "A place like Bar Louie is perfect to wind down from your day … and go into a space where you are amongst your majority again," Letrice said. "You can ground yourself and not filter yourself in a way that you might have to do because of work."
Rodriguez agreed. "When you're Black and when you're aspirational, there's often that divide between how things are supposed to be, the respectability and all those things, and how you are when you want to let your hair down and have fun," he said. "Because of the mix of people who were there — Black middle class people and artists — it was a good mix where it felt comfortable regardless of who you were."
But in spite of the popular shift away from casual dining chains in the 2010s, Bar Louie never really shifted its offerings. Yelp and Google reviews from recent years are full of complaints about the quality of food and service.
Richardson left Chicago in 2008. When he returned to the neighborhood in 2015, Bar Louie had lost its luster; nevertheless, he still sometimes found himself going on summer nights. "It was a known commodity," he said.
"A lot of the places that opened subsequent to Bar Louie around Bar Louie's arrival really have Bar Louie to thank. They proved the viability case for that kind of business in this neighborhood," Richardson said. "They proved that you could have a bar: you could serve booze, you could have all of that go on, (and) people wouldn't act up or be a problem. It wouldn't be a pariah in the neighborhood."
Letrice doesn't think an establishment like Bar Louie will come again.
"When I think about where we can go to hang out after rehearsal now, I feel like we don't have a spot anymore," she said. "Once things like that become pillars of the community, they can't be replaced.”
But she conceded that belief may be because her memories of Bar Louie are so tightly bound with the experience of her 20s: "In a way, I kind of grew up there.”
"I think you could build another place there, but the meaning would not be the same as Bar Louie was for us," she continued. "I'd go with two people, and I'd always run into somebody I'd know, and I'd always meet someone new. I can't say that about any other bar or restaurant that I've been to a million times.”