Fountainhead: A Chicago Barstool Education.

For four years I resided adjacent to Ashland & Irving Park Road, and although Longroom, which appears on my top ten list of treasured bars in Chicago, was about a thirty second gallop from my place, as much as I could, I would make the extra fifteen-minute hike up to Montrose & Damen. Straddling the invisible border of North Center and Ravenswood, the dark wood bar of Fountainhead was where I would regularly plop down, finding my training grounds with Rabid Rabbit, Wookey Jack, and Over Ale.

In sorrow, Fountainhead is and was my number one.

With a beer and whiskey menu four times as thick as the food menu, the alchemy of dimly lit strangers and music, combined with all types of new-to-me elixirs on tap and on cask was enough alone to default me back as much as I possibly could. That is to say nothing of the catalogued library of mystic spirit bottles and pristine entrees.

New to the craft beer scene at the start of a decade, during my initial solo-belly-up to the Fountainhead bar, I met a dude who told me he was in a club, which sometimes biked from Chicago, lakeside all the way to 3 Floyds in Munster, Indiana. I was taken aback by this, awe-inspired. The spirit of this story coming from this stranger made me feel there was so much going on beneath the icy shell surface of awkwardness which is the community of beer enthusiasts, combining other types of nuanced groups like cyclists, runners and artists, chefs and tattooists and baristas and horror movie fans.

I studied the fliers and beer tins in the bathroom as though there might be a pop whiz quiz. My attention was typically, eventually focused toward the purple Dark Lord Day 2009 poster framed to the north. A sacred motif in which to bask in reverence whilst drying your hands.

Some of the records that came out around late 2011 to the overly-heated summer of 2012 will always remind me of meeting friends at the bar there, walking in to the air conditioning blasting in contrast to a 92 degree July Saturday after laying down tracks for our latest rap record. (Half Acre and) Passion Pit Gossamer or Neon Indian Era Extraña or Happy Hands Club Parking Lot to name a couple.

For me, some of the music of the era was also a personal inflection point, and not unlike Fountainhead sparking a new love interest in beer at the early years it was open, the albums released during the period assisted in coalescing something suddenly and subtly tangible for me.

Executive Chef Cletus spent a stint at the venue and he approached that kitchen the way a classical pianist would approach a Bösendorfer. With theatrical flourish his philosophies in working with small producers, fostering relationships, and grasping the networks behind collaboration were meticulously put to the test. On an overcast day I once sat on the rooftop with an Oktoberfest and oscillated between Bangers and Mash and potato gnocchi. 

More nights than I can count. Four-hour stints, both in honor and celebration as well as grieving and heartfelt gut spilling to a crewmember or two. A twenty-year reunion with a friend I hadn’t seen since age fifteen. The “trail of tears” walk from my place to Fountainhead on a dark night in October 2012. Tap takeovers, and Bourbon County Stout Black Friday draught releases – standing room only to cheers charred chocolate wood barrel liquids from snifters aplenty.

One too many times stumbling out the front doorway, directly in to the pizza place, east on Montrose for a slice to walk home with in warm company.

In a roundabout fashion I moved away from Lakeview to end up in Humboldt Park. But Fountainhead, for a while became a default for me in terms of first date scenarios, regardless of distance. I began to enjoy the home turf feel of having a regular place where I would bring said dates.

Truthfully, I’m more reminiscent of the Barrel Room, a secret bar behind the bar than most of the actual dates I was on. Except for the girl who dropped an entire glass of wine. That one stands out. I was lucky enough to score a table in that hidden nook room for the first date. I don’t think the person appreciated it that much, but that’s okay. As a bright red flag, as vivid as the splash of bitter merlot twirling through the air, it signified that we were not meant to be.

One decade. It’s been so long that I have friends I used to meet there, who don’t even drink anymore, let alone go out any longer. But I muddle on. I always will.

The staple began to falter like so many other storied outlets among the 2020 Covid Pandemic. Fountainhead received a Payroll Protection Program loan in the spring. It helped in bridging a gap to summer. But lack of sustainability took hold inevitably when it got chilly during that cursed viral peak. Cases once again started surging and businesses were shuttered on purpose. There may have been a touch of something aside, but regardless a closure was imminent.

November 9th, 2020 some friends and I met up on the rooftop during the final week of Fountainhead’s existence. A round was to be sacramentally shared, and we raised glass urns to the night sky in memorial to the ash that would soon be our beloved rendezvous point.

After frites and lagers and memories bespoke, we closed out one last time, walked downstairs and stepped outside in to the autumn bite. There was an unsettled vibe. We didn’t completely feel at peace with the farewell. I think mainly, probably because we hardly ever sat on the rooftop, so in the scheme of things it didn’t feel like we were really at the Fountainhead we had become so familiar with.

On the sidewalk, we made a decision to try to walk in to the main level – the sanctuary where so many laughs were shared. No patrons were in there due to Covid restriction, but the door connecting to the stairwell was unlocked. We sauntered in to the dimly lit room.

My first stop was the restroom to see if the purple Dark Lord Day poster was still on the wall. It wasn’t there, but I appreciated that either the owner of the print, or a nostalgic thief, either way, now has it hung in their own bathroom. Framed toward the true North, always.

We took some time exploring the Barrel Room and just letting the haunts of the place soak in to us like oak staves absorbing a base porter of one final experience.

We poured out a little liquor. Well, twenty-four year old Pappy Van Winkle to be exact. The bottle was just sitting uncorked, half-empty on the rear bar. The off duty ghostly vapor of bartenders past beckoned us to help ourselves. Instead of pouring it on to the curb, we poured a little in to a pair of inscribed Glencairn glasses.

We each slipped a 50-dollar bill into a bar top shaker pint like Jimmy Conway in Goodfellas slipping cash into a cop’s pocket to compensate for vice.

As a memento I took a wooden Fountainhead menu binder which now graces my office as a folder for precious documents. So much time reading the transcripts in those hymnals at an altar of adoration, as some might sit in a church pew with the newest Bible tracks and Sunday school pamphlets.

Feeling as though we intentionally placed a poetic end cap of closure to the closure of our most highly esteemed beer bar, we bowed goodnight to part ways. Climbing in to my smoke car that I purchased the very year Fountainhead opened, I sipped my Glencairn glass of twenty-four year old Pappy and headed north on Damen Avenue with a mournful song in my heart and a solemn spirit to guide me home.

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