Bar Obituary: The Horseshoe
The Horseshoe was dying long before I ever set foot in it. I had heard rumors about a big scandal that had ruined the owners, somebody running off with the money, somebody having to give up on creating their dream bar halfway through. A new owner not perceiving it as an amazing opportunity but, instead, as a burden, somebody else’s unfinished project that was now unfinishable.
But, the bars that don’t make money, the bars that reflect an offbeat sensibility, are usually the best. So I hoped to make this deeply offbeat and out-of-sync bar into a clubhouse for me and my offbeat band(s).
Playing at the Horseshoe was perfect. You could get a gig whenever you wanted. The owner was a funny old guy who liked our music and would give us a cut of the bar tab when we brought new drunks into his bar. No one cut us off when we played over our allotted hour. The Special was always $5 for a beer and a shot of whiskey*. There was never any cover. If you wanted to be paid, you could pass the hat. You could always get a sound check if you wanted one.
But at the same time…
Playing at the Horseshoe was terrible. The sound guy was often late. The venue drew almost no people. One time, my buddy plugged his amp into the wall and it immediately shorted out because the bar had some weird electrical problems. When we were promoting shows, no one had ever heard of the Horseshoe, and, inconveniently, neither had other venues. The food was… uneven. Sometimes it was hard to tell if the bar was open or closed. They left the house lights up until people came in, so people didn’t come in, so the house lights stayed up. The TV was not tuned to any particular type of entertainment, meaning the Horseshoe didn’t show the most important sporting events or movies or broadcast any particular genre; the TV was just turned at random to whatever the random bar tenders wanted to watch. They left the TV sound on well into sound check.
The Horseshoe died for the same reason most small businesses do, not enough customers. I was never in there when it felt overcrowded, except for once during Ribfest.
The other killer problem the bar suffered was that it lacked the love of the neighbors. In fact, the neighbors hated it. A bar can only be at odds with the neighbors for so long before the Alderman takes a disliking to it. The conflict centered on noise, which kind of makes sense because bars and venues are loud, and kind of makes no sense because, come on! You live on Lincoln Avenue, there are bars all up and down the block, it’s gonna be loud.
The design of it, and I’m leaning on this phrase because it’s pretty perfect, was out of sync. Chicago neighborhoods don’t offer many country bars and that’s for good reason. There’s not much demand for them, and, what’s more, if there were demand for a bar with Texas stylings and Texas cuisine, it would need to fit a more Texas aesthetic. This was a bar that you’d find closed during football games, a bar that took only the parts of Texas that had once caught its attention, like batwing doors and a Horseshoe shaped bar. Oddly, it left out obvious Texan touch points, like country music.
But, of course, it was the very specificity and strangeness that made it such a fun place. I felt like a discovery, an oddity. In a world where bars look more and more the cookie cutter in every way, here was a place that wouldn’t, or more likely, couldn’t, conform. I knew it wasn’t long for this world. I haven’t played there in almost two years. But that’s how tragedies work, they’re not a car wreck in the second act. They crumble toward an inevitable collapse. The Horseshoe had been dying for a long time but when, part way through 2015, it finally shut down for good, I realized I’d loved it more than I knew. No bar since has taken its place in my heart since.
*The Specials warrant particular attention as they were set up in an oddly repetitive way. Every day offered a Special and they were all exactly the same. What follows is my best approximation of the truth:
Monday – $4 PBR Tallboys, $1 Whisky shots
Tuesday – $1 PBR Tallboys, $4 Whisky shots
Wednesday – $2.50 PBR Tallboy, $2.50 Whisky shot
Thursday – $2 PBR Tallboy, $3 Whisky shot
Friday – $3 PBR Tallboys, $2 Whisky shots
Saturday – $5 PBR Tallboy and a Shot of Whisky
Sunday – $5 Shot of Whisky and a PBR Tallboy