"Chicago" by Carl Sandburg

Hog Butcher for the World,
Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
Player with Railroads and the Nation's Freight Handler;
Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of the Big Shoulders

-excerpt from the poem "Chicago" by Carl Sandburg (1916)

Chicago Skyline

Chicago Skyline
The Chicago Skyline from a Near West Side highrise

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Irving Park

The Breakdown
Classy homes along Irving Park Road
An overview: Irving Park means more as a street to many Chicagoans than as a neighborhood.  Those unfamiliar with the neighborhood probably don’t realize that it’s safe, historic, and diverse.  They also don’t realize that it offers restaurants, bars, and music venues that rival those in any other Chicago neighborhood.  What this quiet part of the Second City lacks in quantity, it makes up for in quality.

Irving Park can technically be broken up into a few smaller neighborhoods.  The western half is often referred to as “Old Irving Park”.  Sometimes Mayfair and Kilbourn Park are considered parts of the Irving Park community area as well.  There is a tiny historic section called “The Villa”, a triangle of hundred-year old homesteads.  An explanation of The Villa is shown below.

The boundaries: The boundaries of the Irving Park community area are somewhat erratic, so it’s probably best to refer to the map at the bottom of the page.  Generally though, they are Montrose to the north, Addison to the south, the Chicago River to the east, and the Milwaukee District-North railroad tracks to the west.  As you head further west in the community area, the northern boundary becomes Lawrence and the southern boundary becomes Belmont.

Tree-covered public space divides several of the
boulevards that run through the Villa District
Population make-up: The Irving Park community area has seen a gradual decrease in population since 2000.  Between the 2000 census and the 2010 census, only one of Irving Park's fifteen census tracts actually grew in population, and even that (the area around Kilbourn Park) only grew by 0.3%.

The 2010 population of the Irving Park community area was 53,359, a decrease of 9% from its 2010 census count of 58,643.  The racial breakdown of the neighborhood is 45.8% Hispanic, 41.7% white, 6.9% Asian, and 3.2% black.

A brief history: The Irving Park area was originally intended to be a farming settlement.  However, realizing the value of the land due its proximity to downtown Chicago, Charles T. Race decided it was an opportunity better suited for residential development.  Originally an upscale suburb of Chicago, it was annexed into the City in 1889.  The community area reached a population of over 65,000 in the 1930, sparked by immigration, particularly from Eastern Europeans in the preceding decade.  Over the years, Irving Park has become most well known for its historic residential area, the Villa District, a small residential triangle of land still predominantly featuring bungalows nearly one hundred years old.  The Villa’s borders are essentially Pulaski Road to the west, Addison Street to the south, and the Kennedy Expressway (I-90/94) to the northeast.

Commerce mixing with residential at Kimball & Elston
Today Irving Park is often known as a safe, sleepy, middle-class residential neighborhood.  However, it offers a surprising amount of amenities in terms of dining and nightlife, notably Arun’s, a Chicago institution since the mid-80s and still considered one of the nation’s very best Thai restaurants.  Recent decades have seen an influx of Hispanics into the neighborhood, as well as in bordering Albany Park and Avondale.

Getting there: The “L” is a more-than-serviceable option.  The Blue Line has three stops in the neighborhood: Montrose, Irving Park, and Addison.

If travelling by bus, your best east-west bets are: Montrose (78), Irving Park (80), and Addison (152).  You can also take Lawrence (81) to the far northwest corner and Belmont (77) to the far southwest corner of the neighborhood.  Going north-south you can take Pulaski (53), Kimball (82), and California (52).  Also, the Milwaukee bus (56) goes through a northwest-southeast sliver of the neighborhood.

Smoque BBQ (3800 N. Pulaski Road)
Oh sure, it's just a MINI line...
Chicago has complemented its microbrewing revolution with a comparable rise in BBQ restaurants.  We may not quite be Memphis or Austin or Kansas City yet, but places like Chicago Q, Brand BBQ, and Lillie’s Q have all put the Windy City on the dry-rubbed/sauce-covered map.  But none of these places has gotten quite the attention that a little joint in Irving Park has received.  Smoque has been featured all over everybody’s favorite food channels, notably an episode of Guy Fieri’s out-of-bounds show Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives.  Expect a line out front!  We went a few nights before Thanksgiving at 7:30.  There was a line out the door on a cold, wet evening.  We finally found a seat after making our order 45 minutes later.  So is it worth the trouble?

Laura’s Take: Soooo, Smoque was definitely a solid bet for a bbq meal. They've got all the usual suspects including pork, beef, and chicken options, and a few "modes" you can get 'em in: chopped, sandwich, or brisket. Having the sauce on the side is key - put as much as you want, and don't worry about it overpowering the meat itself. Being someone who's actually not that into bbq sauce, I was really glad about that. I had mac and cheese and fries as my side: next time I'd get the fries again but try something else too. Would I wait outside for an hour for Smoque? Well, maybe I just wasn't raised on bbq, but I'd come back sometime when space is a little easier to come by. This would work double duty by making your time inside the restaurant a little more enjoyable (i.e. less hectic).

Laura couldn't give me 15 seconds to take a pic of the
mac & cheese.  At least you get to see the brisket.
Michael’s Take: I love my bbq.  Smoque definitely delivers, and in the true spirit of bbq, is pretty good bang-for-your-buck.  The pulled pork was tender, juicy, and smoky.  They wisely put the sauce on the side, so that way you get to measure the right amount for each bite.  The sauce is thin and it doesn’t overpower the meat even if you put a good amount on.  For sides, the fries are what I hope for in a restaurant and so rarely get: crispy, greasy, salty, skin-on.  BBQ beans are a nice treat too.  Baked beans but they come in the bbq sauce and, as a special treat, include chunks of brisket.  Now that’s sweet.  One thing definitely worth noting, the floor staff were outstanding.  They’d have a table cleaned off and have you seated in about 15 seconds.  Polite the entire time, they’d even bring you your food if you were crammed in the corner and couldn't make your way over to the pick-up counter.

Anything Else We Missed: It’s BYOB, and that’s always great.  And especially for a place like this, you’re just as welcome bringing in your Milwaukee’s Best (you know who you are), as you are your sauvignon blanc.  Admittedly the former is probably more appropriate anyway.  A crew of about a half-dozen gents were enjoying their Smoque with a case of Old Style when we got there.  Just livin’ the dream, man.  Just livin’ the dream.
The line outside isn't misleading.  This place is bumpin'.

The Abbey Pub (3420 W. Grace Street)
Whoa whoa whoa, it's a pub AND a grill???
In a City loaded with great music venues, the Abbey Pub stands strong alongside its trendier competitors like the Metro and the Double Door.  Unlike their Wrigleyville and Wicker Park counterparts, the Abbey Pub is slightly under the radar, likely due in part to its location on a quiet stretch of Elston Avenue.  Formerly something of a dive (more on that later), the Abbey has had new life injected into it over the past year.  The Abbey essentially consists of two venues, the main concert hall, and the Green Room, a refurbished bar area with a small stage.  We were in the Green Room for open mic night, which always brings out an interesting assortment of talent.

Laura’s Take: When you go to The Abbey Pub you kind of feel like you're tucked away - not down in the bright lights of Lincoln Park, this place takes a little bit of gettin' to get there. It definitely is a draw though, and if you are free on open mic night, go to kick back, relax, and see what fate has in store. The lineup the night we were there was seemingly slapshot but actually worked out well in the end as the stronger performers ended up coming on in later stages. The last girl we heard onstage was a total surprise. In my mind she blew the previous ones away with her talent. They said she was a regular there, so come and watch for yourself. Just try not to sit at the table right next to the piano bench as you may be in the musicians' way as they make their way around and stow their stuff to the side of the stage. 

"This next song's about RC Cola."
VH-1 presents "Storytellers" live from the Green Room...
Michael’s Take: I’m gonna start with the main hall since I’ve seen three shows there.  I haven’t seen a show since it was recently renovated, but it was definitely beautiful in its “divyness”.  It was a great place to be shoulder-to-shoulder with fellow fans of the musician(s) on-stage.  The sound was good, and the intimacy was awesome (get there early and the band would basically breathe on you during the show).  I’m sure the recent renovations haven’t changed that aspect, and in all likelihood have just prettied it up a bit.  The Green Room was new to me when we went.  It was pretty decent.  Polished wood gives it that fresh new Irish pub feel.  Drinks are expensive.  Open mic night is of course a mixed bag.  There were a couple very talented kids, and it’s fun to see that.  The Green Room isn’t very big, and there were definitely as many musicians there as spectators.  It’s worth a look for a drink or two, but the real standout at the Abbey is the main venue.  Make sure to go see a show there.

Anything Else We Missed: About the renovations.  The Abbey Pub was featured on Spike TV’s Bar Rescue this past year.  For the uninitiated, the show is basically to bars what Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares and Restaurant: Impossible are to restaurants.  It’s a relatively interesting episode and is intriguing to see the evolution of the Abbey from what it once was to what it is now.

Leader Bar (3000 W. Irving Park Road)
Ahh, so this is one of them LEADER bars
Further dispelling the myth that there’s nothing to do in Irving Park but “reside”, there’s this brand-spanking-new joint at Irving Park and Sacramento.  It’s the latest offering from the Windy City Group, the same folks that brought you Max Bar (Lincoln Park) and ├╝berstein (Lake View and Bucktown).

Michael’s Take: Irving Park Road in the Irving Park neighborhood is an interesting little strip.  It has the same feel as Irving Park Road in North Center, just slightly less dense and slightly less exciting.  Still, it has all the amenities of a trendier neighborhood, just more spaced out.  I had no preconceived notions of Leader Bar going in.  Admittedly we went in on a Tuesday evening around 11:00 so it was pretty quiet, only two other small groups sitting at the bar.  Our bartender insisted that Black Wednesday was going to be a full house.  The space is ENORMOUS (3,500 square feet according to their website – that’s a suburban McMansion there).  I will give it this, it may have been the most spotless bar I’ve ever sat in.  Was it because the following night was the biggest drinking night of the year and they had to be ready?  I don’t know, but if that’s the case, they did a helluva job cleaning that place.

All your favorite suds are on tap
Laura’s Take: I'd like to come back at a time when Leader Bar is full. It had more of your 'luxurious' end bar atmosphere, cushy places to sit, some romantic lighting going on, and endless niches extending in the back. It's nice to see this sort of option in the neighborhood. Other than that I would have to go back to get more of the vibe, but be encouraged if you are interested that they do have a decent wine selection as well.

Anything Else We Missed: We didn’t get a chance to try the food.  They definitely offer it though.  The specialties seem to be personal flatbreads, 14” pizzas, and sliders.  Hey, three blackened tilapia sliders and a side of fries for $8.95 doesn’t sound too shabby (note for later).  Oh, and on Sundays they have something called the “Soon-to-be Famous Macho Nacho Breakfast” for $9.95.  Nachos for breakfast?  We love this country.

Every seat in the house is comfortable.  Trust me, I sat in every single one.

Irving Park: The Final Tally
Beautiful hundred year old homes along the streets of the Villa District
There’s a lot to like about Irving Park, even if it’s not the most stylish, lively, or even architecturally significant neighborhood.  While none of those traits are necessarily strong points, Irving Park definitely is not lacking in those regards either.  It’s a very accessible neighborhood from the north side as well.  Plenty of buses go through Irving Park, and the Blue Line makes multiple stops.  It’s only a few minutes of Blue Line riding from Logan Square and Wicker Park, and it’s right off the Kennedy Expressway if motor vehicle is an option.  There's definitely more to see than what we've shown you above too.  Irving Park deserves another look, and at some point we'll be back to bring you more and try to do the neighborhood more justice.

Admittedly, Irving Park may not be at the top of the list of neighborhoods alluring to young professionals to reside, but it is at least worth visiting.  A night at one of the neighborhood’s restaurants (inexpensive or very upscale are both options) and then a stroll over to a relaxing tavern is certainly an option.  And then there’s always the Abbey.  For any art rock or alternative music lover, it’s well worth at least one visit.

The Irving Park community area in yellow.  The pink triangle represents the Villa District.

Independence Park between Pulaski and Elston on the south side of Irving Park Road

Little Bucharest: best Romanian restaurant in the City?  Either way, an Irving Park institution.

Irving Park (yellow) is just a shot up the Blue Line or the Kennedy Expressway from the Loop (blue) 


  1. " it is at least worth visiting" Please dont lie to the people.

  2. Well boo-urns to YOU, Anonymous (although we appreciate you reading). Irving Park is a charming neighborhood that's not exactly Lake View in terms of excitement, but certainly has its amenities and entertainment. Some point down the road we'd like to go back for a re-visited entry.

  3. I'm a young professional living in Old Irving Park, and I love living here. I really think this neighborhood has so much potential, and I keep discovering new businesses to enjoy. Thanks for the write up!

  4. I am living in Houston but never visited Chicago. I liked your article. It seems that Chicago is an interesting place and can I visit there to see Chicago Venues? I love a lot beauty of Chicago.

  5. I live in Irving for 10 years now and I am happy to be in this city. The weather, food, park, restaurants and bar are everywhere. I am doing transportation business and everything is smooth as I expected.

  6. I never had any problem in Irving. I been here for 5 years now and doing business. The neighborhood are very kind and friendly. So many great places to visit like pub, restaurants, park and malls. The important is that it's quite community and everyone are working hard for the families.


  7. The maps really helped me understand the area which Irving park is located