“We’re toying with something and I don’t even know if I should say it,” says Old Oak Tap co-owner Chris Ongkiko, clearly torn on the issue. “We’ve got a little slushie machine that we bought, and we’re debating, ’cause that could be funny, or it could go bad. It could just be cheesy. But with a big patio, if it’s eighty degrees outside, it’s gorgeous in the city, who knows? Maybe you throw some vodka in a slushie drink.”
Perhaps for some bar owners the decision of whether or not to include a slushie machine comes straight from the gut, too minor of a detail to merit any serious thought. But that’s not how Chris Ongkiko has conceived and built the almost-completed Old Oak Tap (2109 West Chicago) with his wife Susan and Darkroom owner Amy Teri. The way the man talks, it would be appear every decision and every meticulous detail undergoes a pros-versus-cons analysis.
“You could go two different directions,” says Ongkiko, who also co-owns The Continental with his wife, as he still considers the slushie dilemma. “You could say, let’s just do white trash and we’re just gonna do orange, cherry and watermelon, because that’s total kitsch. Or you go like passion fruit or mango or something, but then you walk a fine line. It could go bad.”
Today, the bar feels a bit dusty and there’s still a mirror or two to be hung, but for the most part, it’s done, the almost-finished product of “fifty or so redesigns, on paper and in our heads.” Sometime in August, the general public will be welcomed into the new and clean bi-level bar and restaurant, featuring a 1,500-square-foot patio, a modern yet rustic-looking interior with no walls (to give the room a more “open feel”), natural olive-green tones to complement the summer months and oak bar counters (as well as two fireplaces) to create a comfortable feel in the wintertime. And of course, the bar offers twelve drafts and thirty-forty bottles of beer (from PBR to top-of-the-line Belgian, Brazillian and Costa Rican brews), ten or so choices for wine and, for the first time in Ongkiko’s business history, food.
“Knowing the neighborhood we knew there was a need for just decent, really good upscale bar food,” he says. “Today we’ll go out for lunch and say, ‘OK, what do you want to eat? Subway? Freaking McDonalds? You know, there’s a couple little places but it’s very basic bar food, pretty straightforward bar food. Not knocking them, but it’s nothing earth-shattering and nothing that you would necessarily want to eat repeatedly.”
Having no prior experience with food, the owners hired former Mas executive chef John Manion to oversee the menu, which Ongkiko describes as mostly sandwiches and salads in the $6-$10 price range.
“I’m trying to do things a little bit healthier,” he says, mentioning that he wants to be able to feed his daughter without worrying about the fat content. “A little fresher ingredients, as opposed to some bars, ‘Oh, here’s a bunch of chicken wings. Let’s throw them in a deep fryer.’ Or ‘Here’s a bunch a French fries off the back of a Sysco truck.'”
The need for upscale food reflects what Ongkiko believes is his target clientele: young urban professional thirtysomethings, a little more established than the hipster crowd that frequents The Continental.
“Here I can be like ‘Hey, how’s your kid doing? You gotta wake up tomorrow? Oh I gotta wake up tomorrow.’ People at our other places might be like, ‘Oh, I gotta wake up at noon tomorrow. I got band practice at noon, I got a busy day.’ That’s great, but I’m only gonna sleep three hours, and feed my kid, walk the dog and go to work. [Opening Old Oak] is probably a reflection a little bit of where we are in life as well.”
Since he expects the crowd at Old Oak to be more diverse, it complicates the strategy when it comes to what Ongkiko calls the “most important aspect to a bar”: what music to play.
“I think we’re going to have a lot of our friends, the artists, the musicians, the tattooed hipsters, and I think we’re gonna have the mom and dad with the 1-year old coming in, so the music’s gotta reflect that,” he says. “You can’t have Motorhead or some whiny indie band that’s pining for their lost love. It’ll be a pretty diverse mix, everything from old school hip-hop like De La Soul to old R&B and soul like Stevie Wonder and Curtis Mayfield.”
Between the food, drinks, music, the interior and exterior design, the Old Oak owners have just about everything figured out. Make sure to drop by in a couple weeks to cast your vote on that damn slushie machine. (Andy Seifert)