By Ben Joravsky
The quiet tree-lined streets of West Rogers Park, where the squeals of children on bicycles account for most of the noise, hardly seem the spot for a pricey sports-themed restaurant-bar.
But ready or not, the kitsch and glitz are on their way, as Harley-Davidson plans to add such an establishment to its showroom at 6868 N. Western.
Unsurprisingly, many residents are up in arms. Fearing hordes of riders roaring through the streets, they’re attempting to vote the precinct dry.
“It’s the combination of motorcycles and liquor that galvanizes opposition,” says Paul Jay, member of the Rogers Park Manor Block Club, which opposes the project. “The phrase ‘volatile mix’ is the one I use over and over.”
But Barry Brown, who owns the Harley dealership, can’t understand the fuss. His business is located on a commercial stretch of Western, not far from some of the city’s busiest car dealerships. Until a few years ago he operated a tavern at the southern end of his dealership, where he now wants to build the restaurant. “We ran a good tavern,” says Brown. “There were no complaints.”
He says the idea for the restaurant was sparked by Harley’s spectacular rise in popularity. What was once considered a bike for thugs (it was the favorite brand of the Hell’s Angels) is now the choice bike for wealthy weekend riders. The Harley, as one rider puts it, has become “a middle-age aphrodisiac; instead of buying a sports car, they buy a Harley.”
What makes them popular to the upscale crowd is what made them popular to the Hell’s Angels: they’re big and loud. “When a Harley kicks up, you recognize the roar,” says the enthusiast. “It’s very impressive, if you go for that thing.”
In the last few years Harley’s stock has steadily increased. There’s a three-month wait for most bikes and a strong demand for accessories like T-shirts, leather jackets, helmets, gloves, and boots. Harley opened its first restaurant in Manhattan (the Harley-Davidson Cafe), bringing in tourists and suburbanites while turning off critics. “The new theme restaurants share more or less the same gastronomic identity, or rather, the lack of one,” wrote Herbert Muschamp in a New York Times roundup of several places, including Planet Hollywood and the Hard Rock Cafe. “Basically, they serve bar food: burgers, chicken salad, barbecued baby-back ribs. And only a dimly sensed aura of Americana links a burger to a motorcycle, a club sandwich to a horror movie, a bowl of chili to a wall decorated with movie star memorabilia.”
But it’s not the menu that Rogers Park residents worry about–it’s the noise. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that motorcycle riders would be attracted to this restaurant,” says Jay. “Just imagine trying to sleep in the summer when you have 30 or so people coming out at closing time and revving up their engines.”
The residents also worry about accidents. “It’s one thing to have a neighborhood bar that people walk to–it’s another to have a restaurant frequented by people on motorcycles,” says Jay. “Are they going to be in good condition to ride home? They’ll be riding through residential streets.”
Brown says he has “bent over backwards” to appease residents. He met with them in the spring and summer, led tours of the restaurant (still under construction), showed off blueprints, promised to build new toilets so patrons wouldn’t urinate in the alleys, and agreed not to sell liquor while the showroom is open. Again and again he emphasized that the restaurant would attract upscale customers. “The entire building is being redeveloped consistent with the upscale character Harley-Davidson has developed throughout the world,” he wrote in a letter to residents.
His proposal is backed by Harley-Davidson officials in the corporate office in Milwaukee. “I feel the restaurant and the policies in place [create] a much better situation than prior to the remodeling when the tavern was open during the same hours as the motorcycle business,” John Finstad, Harley’s director of franchise operations, wrote in a letter to Jay.
Yet residents have not been swayed. Some of them contend that Brown did a poor job of running the old tavern. Others say he has displayed a quick temper and stubborn insensitivity to their concerns. “I don’t think Barry realizes what he’s saying sometimes,” says Jay. “He once told me, ‘Let’s say you were hit by a drunk driver, wouldn’t it be better if it were a motorcycle rather than a car?’ My response was dumbfounded silence. What a lame defense. Basically, you’re acknowledging that people will be leaving inebriated. He keeps reminding me that this is a different, more upscale type of biker. But the motorcycles make just as much noise no matter who’s riding them.”
Brown contends that residents inflamed his antagonism when they gathered signatures to hold a November 5 referendum on voting the precinct dry (his is the only liquor establishment in the precinct). “I knocked on doors, I sent around letters–I did what I could to tell people what was going on,” he says. “And still they chose to try and vote me dry.”
Brown says he’s a hardworking, law-abiding entrepreneur who’s been misunderstood. “I had a towing business and I kept saving my pennies until I had enough money to buy a Harley dealership,” says Brown. “I own a lot of property in this neighborhood. I have a whole lot of money invested in West Rogers Park. Do you think I want to ruin this neighborhood? I pay major taxes, so residents should be happy I’m here.”
The proposed restaurant isn’t modeled on New York’s Harley-Davidson Cafe, he says; in fact it will be less about motorcycles than sports.
“I’m tight with the Bulls, the Bears, and the Blackhawks,” says Brown. “We sell to them all. We built the black Fat Boy you’ve seen on the cover of Dennis Rodman’s book. We just built a bike for Bill Wennington. We sold one to Mike Ditka. We’ll be hanging sticks and pucks and jerseys on the wall. This is going to be a classy place where people can go to watch the games on big TVs. We’ll sell burgers, chili, ribs–that kind of stuff. We won’t even allow smoking. We’re not looking to attract motorcycle gangs. That’s not what we’re after.”
But some residents wonder just how classy the place will be, judging from the corporate name on Brown’s liquor license. “It’s ‘Licker Busch,'” Jay notes. “Clearly, he’s no feminist.”
Brown downplays the significance of the name. “Give me a break; it’s not dirty, that’s just the spelling of it. That’s just the name on the liquor license. It’s not on our checks. It won’t be the name of the bar. My lawyer’s secretary came up with it.”
Brown does have some supporters in the community. One resident, John Leyden, is even going door-to-door asking neighbors to rescind their signatures from a previous petition against Brown’s proposal.
“I’m for the restaurant,” says Leyden, who happens to be a Harley rider and lives less than a block away. “Barry’s a businessman; he’s not stupid. He’s going to take that place and make it better. Some people don’t even know the truth about the place. One lady said she didn’t like the way motorcycle riders wore leather. I explained that some people dress that way ’cause it can protect you if you fall. It’s no big deal.”
Brown has also hired a lawyer to fight the effort to get the issue on the ballot. If he wins, there won’t be a vote in November.
“I’ve spent a lot of money on lawyers,” he says. “Believe me, I’d rather have spent that money on the neighborhood, building a park for the kids or something. Why get the lawyers rich? I think I’ll win. I predict I’ll open the place around Christmas and there won’t be any problems. I’m going to try to get along with my neighbors. I’ll even join their block club if they’ll have me. We’re going to be one big happy family. You watch.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Barry Brown photo by Randy Tunnel.