On Thursday (8.30), a mix of locals and visitors from around the world met up in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood for a night at Delilah’s. Clad in sports jackets and denim jackets, drinking cheap beer and pricey whiskey, strangers became friends. The scene was not unusual for the famed bar, but this particular crowd was celebrating something special—Delilah’s 25th anniversary.
Most experts place the average lifespan of a bar at two years. So, how do you make it to a quarter of a century?
Some people suggest that Delilah’s selection of over 800 whisk(e)ys is the secret sauce. Others point to the bar’s gallery-quality, rotating art shows. Still others believe that the venue’s status as a film destination is the primary driver.
Delilah’s co-founder and owner Mike Miller does not subscribe to any of those assessments; in fact, he’d rather you’d don’t label the venue at all. “When I opened this bar there was no such thing as a ‘whiskey bar’ or a ‘beer bar’,” he recalled. “We’re just a bar with a lot of whiskey. We’re not a dive bar; we’re just a very dark bar. I don’t believe in these categories.”
If you can not resist labels, ownership did concede, “First and foremost we’re punk rock bar.” While, yes, it’s not unusual to see hear the Misfits in the bar, Miller still does not believe that punk alone is responsible for the quarter century run.
The key, he says is “We throw a unique event every day. Having different things daily, but it also has an umbrella around it. It keeps us engaged and it keeps the guests engaged.”
Guest engagement is paramount to Miller’s model. “We don’t want them to see the man behind the curtain. If we throw the perfect party, no one is thinking about the economics or the logistics,” he espoused. “If I look around and no one is looking at their celphone, I know I’m doing a good job.”
The epistemology stems from an adherence to the conventions of a different era pre-dating contemporary, specialized bars. Televisions are not a focus and sports are rarely on the tube—you’re more likely to see a documentary about The Clash. (Miller describes the latter fare as “an opportunity to learn something.”)
Likewise, the establishment believes that every detail from the signature Tom Billings mural upstairs to the backbar, itself, enhances the interaction “When you sit here you’re looking at the bottles not the tv. And, the bottles are cool,” said the proud publican. “People are engaged with the booze.”
And, engagement is essential according to Miller. “People have an active engagement here whether it’s beer or cinema or art,” he told NP.
The heart of the engagement in this old school paradigm is literally organic. The crowds are an oddly comfortable mix of khakis and full sleeved tattoos. “Bars used to be more iconic and defined by the people not by a business model—more of a communal sensibility,” the owner observed.
That communal sensibility begins with the staff at Delilah’s. “I’ve been fortunate enough to have some fabulous coworkers over the years including two people who have been here for the entire 25 years,” mused Miller.
The staff is highly involved in crafting all aspects of the bar from programming the jukebox to building the program. For example, that massive list of spirits? Well, it’s famously presented on plain, white paper sheets in a binder sans tasting notes. That means the bartenders are responsible for a lot of knowledge.
To that end, staffer are never hired as bartenders, but must learn the ropes and the spirits selections from the vets before taking a spot behind the sticks. The team makes pilgrimages to events like WhiskeyFest as a group—the team that tastes together stays together.
Even adding a new spirit to the list is a collaborative decision—and a big decision. After all, with so many offerings, there is no more physically available shelf space. “To add a bottle, we need to subtract a bottle. So, we’ve all tasted a whiskey talked to the rep before we put it on the shelf,” explained Miller.
All the details total up to a bar where both staff and patron feel invested. “It makes a big difference when you walk into a bar and the people there actually want to be there,” he stated.
And, after 25 years, Miller still wants to be there. “I’m not sick of it yet,” he concluded.