Poppin’ Bubbly

Michael Nagrant / 12.01.06

Henry Johnson and the Organ Express jazz band were poppin like the bubbles in the hundreds of champagne glasses at the grand opening party of Pops for Champagne at 601 N. State St. Thursday night.

Owner Tom Verhey a former Bell and Howell camera salesman was in Vienna in 1980 when he happened upon a champagne bar called Reiss. He said, “It was my first real awakening to what a transcendent beverage champagne could be.” He added, “Other than cheap bubbly served at weddings, I’d never really experienced champagne before.”

Inspired by the experience, Verhey soon quit his job to open the original Pops in 1982 at 2934 W. Sheffield, the champagne bar that almost never was. Verhey said that when they built the original Pops, the guy at the Chicago zoning department issued permits which allowed a build out of a full bar, but when the inspectors came out, they realized a mistake had been made, and that the actual zoning only allowed for a small restaurant style bar. Verhey and his alderman fought the restriction, and for the last 24 years he’s been serving up great bubbles and jazz.

Verhey said that it was rare for a concept like Pops to succeed in a residential neighborhood like Lakeview, but that because of the unique nature of the business, many patrons thankfully made the trip over the years. Still, it was time to grow the business beyond the neighborhood, so Verhey closed down the old place, and looked for new digs to expand on his vision of expanded dining, serving up lunch and dinner, along with a retail shop to complement the champagne and music. After looking at spots for six months, he came across the old Tree Studios building at 601 N. State St, located behind Bloomingdales. He thought the spot was “Really something special.”

The top floor of the new digs is a classic modern space complemented by glass hi-top tables and banquette seating. The back wall is silver with embossed metallic bubbles that ape the golden ones in the glass. The centerpiece is a natural onyx and amber glass topped bar over which hangs a steel mesh chandelier, that with its inlaid plasma screens, looks a bit like the an elegant reimagining of a hockey arena center ice scoreboard.

If you want to hear some live jazz, you descend down a staircase lit by a hazy blue light that recalls a dreamy David Lynch film montage. The basement jazz club is an intimate rock walled grotto that recalls the vintage cavern style clubs of Paris.

Executive Chef Andre Christopher has done time at Zealous and Ambria here in Chicago, and he’s also worked in New York at Craft and with Rocco DiSpirito at Union Pacific. Most recently, Christopher was the Chef de Cuisine at Japonais, and he’s definitely brought his experience with him, serving up glinting ruby red squares of big eye tuna and zesty tuna crudo at the opening. The sample small plates menu promises frog leg risotto and rhubarb-lacquered Muscovy duck breast. If his proficiency with meat is anything like his sea-worthy offerings, the food will be exciting. Food fans will also be happy to hear the entire place is smoke-free, ensuring a clean tasting and drinking experience.

Pops will offer 7 champagnes by the glass ranging from $8-30 and 70 bottles ranging in price from $20-600. While their offerings won’t be totally exclusive, wine director W. Craig Cooper is expected to feature champagnes from small and rare producers that you won’t be able to find anywhere else.

Pops is located at 601 N. State St. Phone is:312-266-POPS