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“Small” does more than describe The Alcove, the three-month-old bar/restaurant at 512 Main St. that owner Scott Bradley calls “the smallest fully liquor-licensed bar in greater Chicago.”
“Small” shapes the business – the décor, the vibe, the menu, the patrons.
“Everything is driven by scale,” he says.
It is not as though Mr. Bradley set out with a master plan for a tiny bar. After nearly 35 years in the restaurant field, the five-year Evanston resident knew that “every retail business relies on location.” So the site, not the size, drew him to the storefront left vacant last spring when Marie Parie Boutique moved to larger quarters a few doors east.
He had looked all over town for the right venue. If this property had been somewhere else, he says, he might still be looking. But 512 Main is in the block between Chicago and Hinman avenues – “one of the few metropolitan blocks in Evanston,” Mr. Bradley says – a block with a “density and verticality” that “could almost be in Brooklyn.”
But despite its advantageous location, the close quarters gave Mr. Bradley pause.
“Is it viable? Is it legal?” he wondered.
Convinced on both scores, he undertook a remodel. One-fourth of the scant 400-square-foot floor space became the shining bathroom Mr. Bradley counts as one of the bar’s biggest assets.
Having installed the requisite drains and plumbing for restaurant fixtures, Mr. Bradley unpacked some props from his past, trappings from what he refers to as his “full-blown coffeehouses” in upstate New York and Kansas City. What he plays down as “generalized Mediterranean kitsch” came out of storage to lend the bar a cozy, old-world air.
In a number of ways its Lilliputian dimensions constrain The Alcove. With maximum seating for 14 (eight more outside), it challenges the norm in America, where, as Mr. Bradley says, “Bigger has always been better.”
Those who come to The Alcove expecting a wide choice may be disappointed. There is one beer on tap and enough room to store just four wines for ordering by the glass. The bar has no call liquor, he says – no Maker’s Mark whiskey or other brand-name hard liquor – but consequently can offer a $6 martini.
The food menu at The Alcove is limited to what Mr. Bradley can produce in a tight space with basic equipment. Summer fare included panini and salads; for winter there will be a daily soup from the hot plate and the occasional comforting pot roast or stew from the crock-pot. Some days there will be cake or cookies baked in the convection oven by the owner/cook/bartender/bottle-washer, who compares his kitchen to the galley of a small sailboat.
Evanston does not allow bars that do not serve food. But in any case, it is liquor that will make or break this business, Mr. Bradley says, adding, “I couldn’t make money with sandwiches.”
While he notes a general tendency for people to feel that “if they’re not looking for something that’s not there, they’re not doing their job as consumers,” The Alcove seems to attract people who appreciate what it offers, not what is missing.
The size of the place – “its oddity,” he says – could well be a turn-off for customers. Instead, they embrace it, Mr. Bradley says. “Everyone is drawn by the scale.”
They may be attracted, too, by what he calls “the European idea of living in the moment.” The Alcove has no wi-fi or television, and Mr. Bradley admits he is inclined to “put on the [’50s pop string music of] Montovani.”
He jokes that “it’s an old man’s place” but takes pride in “the space [being] about people coming in and talking.” Seated on the oak benches, customers “are gonna touch the person next to them,” he says. “Often there is a general discussion in the whole place.”
Mr. Bradley has found that The Alcove holds special appeal for women. He speculates that “female customers are comfortable here. They don’t want to be hit on; they are looking for a community space.”
He is surprised to have received some 30 requests for private parties and has decided to close Sundays and Mondays, in part to accommodate them. Rather than being relegated to a back room, he says, party guests at The Alcove have a street view and, “because of the scale here, [they] will own the place.”
Unexpected as well, he says, is the positive reception he has received from the community and the fact that maybe “because of the intimacy of the space … people in the neighborhood have a sense of ownership.” He admits to being “overwhelmed with the support.”
With his little restaurant Mr. Bradley has created a haven – an “adult place” that is pleasing to the over-30 crowd and to its 48-year-old proprietor. That is a good thing, he says, because “no one is gonna get rich, so I have to want to be here.”
Bucking another trend, he has no immediate plans to expand. For the foreseeable future, small is big enough.