Ask Maria Jaimes what makes her Logan Square bar so popular, and she’ll tell you about the homemade buffet she sets out every Tuesday night. “The young people from the neighborhood, they tell each other, ‘Go by the Whirlaway, Maria makes good food for free,'” she explains.

But her regulars say there’s an even better reason for frequenting this small, smoky bar: the owner.

“I come here to enjoy the atmosphere and talk to Maria,” says Andy Remaly, 25, who spends up to five nights a week at the Whirlaway. “She’s like a second mother–you almost feel guilty about getting drunk in front of her.”

Neil Feathers, 33, agrees. He’s been meeting friends here for eight months and tries to come as often as he can. “The food is good, but Maria’s awesome,” he says.

In many ways the Whirlaway is Maria. It’s impossible to walk in and not meet her–she rushes to the door to hug regulars and makes a point of introducing herself to newcomers. And her design touches–a twig wreath accented with a painted wood Welcome sign, autumn-leaf tablecloths, a low, comfy couch–make the bar seem less like a business and more like a dad’s paneled basement retreat. The kind where mom tut-tuts about the mess but always brings down dinner.

With her no-nonsense short hair, smart black pantsuit, and firm handshake, Maria, 54, could easily pass for an office worker or bank executive. But she has worked as neither. She and her husband, Sergio, 63, have owned the Whirlaway for 22 years, since they moved to Chicago from central Mexico. “My husband was interested in the [bar] business, and the place was a good opportunity to come to the neighborhood,” she says. The sign outside the bar said “Whirlaway-Karczma” (karczma being Polish for “inn”), and the Jaimeses haven’t replaced it. Says Maria, “The Polish lady who owned it asked my husband if we would keep the name, and he said no problem.”

The name isn’t the only thing that’s frozen in time. The entire space oozes vintage, from the Special Export sign jutting out from the circa-1930s facade to the silver icebox handles on the dark wood cabinetry behind the long bar. Even the jukebox selection is a bit long in the tooth, favoring artists like the Eagles, Depeche Mode, and the Cure.

Maria says she “never in a million years” expected to own a bar, but the role of den mother has come easily to her. “I’m from a big family, but everyone is still in Mexico,” she says. “All these kids are my family. I love these kids.”

Like any proud parent, Maria spares no film when it comes to capturing their antics and celebrations, and framed photo montages hang on nearly every wall. Her affinity for her customers is also the reason behind the Tuesday-night buffet, which she started two years ago. “It’s like appreciation day for the people who are keeping me in business,” she says. And, she adds, some of them could probably use a good meal.

Beginning promptly at 8, Maria starts loading a back table with foil baking pans full of things like chicken mole, bean casserole, salad, roasted vegetables, and pasta. “Every week it’s completely different. I never like to make the same thing twice, so no one gets bored,” she says. Because everything is made from scratch, she often starts cooking at 6 AM. Her favorite dishes are Mexican; stuffed mushrooms are a customer favorite. Usually, she says, the food is gone by 9:30.

Although Tuesdays command the big spread, regulars say Maria often feeds them other nights of the week as well. “When there’s a game on, she always brings down chips or some kind of food,” says Feathers. She’s also known for surprising people on their birthdays with cakes or special meals. When Alex Hiniker turned 22, Maria made the complete Tuesday-night banquet even though Hiniker’s birthday fell on a Saturday. “She and Sergio always say, ‘You’re like a daughter to me.'”

Hiniker says she’s been coming to the Whirlaway every day for the past six months–since she moved to the neighborhood from Maryland. Looking for a place to hang out, she was intrigued by the Polish name and decided to give the bar a try. “Maria carded me when I walked in,” she recalls. “And when I was leaving, she remembered my name–she said, ‘Good-bye, Alexandra.’ I thought, this is a place to come back to.”

The Whirlaway is at 3224 W. Fullerton, 773-276-6809.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Rob Warner.