What a difference a couple of years can make. In April 1996, when Mark and Mary Jurczyk bought a run-down bar called Manny’s Place at 2500 N. Ashland, the neighborhood near the intersection of Ashland and Fullerton lacked what anyone would call ambience. In spite of the longtime presence of Rudi’s Wine Bar, this corner of Lincoln Park was known less for fine French bistro than for short-order Mexican grill.

The Jurczyks, however, saw possibilities in the rough stretch. Mark spent months rehabbing the bar, refinishing wood floors and walls until they glowed with a satin luster, while Mary focused on building a kitchen. The couple replaced windows frequently broken and kept removing the graffiti that showed up on their walls.

In November 1996 the Jurczyks reopened the place as Players Club, and in the five years since, as they’ve built a loyal following, rents in the neighborhood have skyrocketed and a Starbucks has opened at the base of the lofts next door. Mary’s a proud good neighbor in a neighborhood she’s now much happier to be a part of.

The Jurczyks’ goal has always been to create a friendly neighborhood gathering spot that combines Mark’s love of auto and motorcycle racing and Mary’s interest in cooking. Mark, a competitive driver who races a Porsche 911 Turbo in national competitions, has been responsible for the decor. Walls are plastered with racing memorabilia while flags and banners hang from the ceiling. In a cozy back room with a fireplace, Rick Mears’s screaming yellow 1998 CART championship car is suspended from the ceiling. Formula One, CART, and motorcycle racing are featured on the numerous TV screens throughout the bar’s two rooms, and members of the local Ducati motorcycle racing club regularly gather for Tuesday-night drinks and dinner, mingling with neighborhood regulars and the occasional homesick Eurotraveler.

Toy motorcycles and miniature race cars line the top shelf behind the bar, which is particularly well stocked to encourage lingering. There are more than a dozen draft beers and over a dozen varieties of scotch, as well as nearly two dozen vodkas. An extensive selection of bottled beers features patrons’ European favorites, including Zywiec, a full-bodied Polish beer, as well as Czech Radegast and German Warsteiner and Bitburger.

Meanwhile, Mary’s goal in the kitchen has been to create heart-healthy twists on recipes from her Polish grandmother. Mary, who grew up in the old country and came to the U.S. in the 1970s, learned to cook the old-fashioned way. “I was raised on a farm, where I learned how to make butter and cheese. My grandmother taught me to cook.”

But she approaches traditional recipes with a distinctly new-world attitude. Her pierogi and goulash–and the escargot, grilled tuna steak, pastas, steak Diane, and rack of lamb that fill Players Club’s extensive eight-page menu–are all homemade, and the menu warns diners to expect a 15-30 minute wait since food is prepared to order. She doesn’t use canned goods and substitutes whole-grain spelt flour for white flour and sea salt for rock salt. Fish is fresh daily, chicken is organic and free range, bread is sprouted, and everything is prepared to be “sugar-correct,” as Mary terms it–made with natural sweeteners like honey and fruit juices instead of refined white sugar.

The menu’s eclecticism is all part of Mary’s plan. “I want to introduce people to food that they will not only learn how to eat, but also something that is better for them to eat,” she says. She directs patrons onto the right path with symbols on the menu, where red hearts indicate foods that are “sugar program friendly and a low carb dish” and yellow hearts mark those options that are best for “those playing the game for a while.”

Those who worry that all this emphasis on eating properly may take the fun out of it should try Players Club’s breakfast, served Saturdays and Sundays. Although the brunch menu has the same healthy approach as the regular offerings, it doesn’t stint on old-word decadence. Besides the complete “egg menu” and the filet mignon Benedict, there are strawberry and apple crepes as big as king-size burritos, stuffed with fresh fruit and sour cream, sprinkled with triple sec and amaretto, and served on a platter garnished with ribbons of whipped cream and pecans. Wish my own grandmother had fed me like that.

Players Club is at 2500 N. Ashland, 773-477-7769.

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