By Thomas Vogel
A new gay bar, Hard Wood, is coming to Forest Park's nightlife scene, just about three years after the village's last remaining one, the Hideaway on Roosevelt Road, closed.
Hard Wood will be located where Chalk, 7414 Madison St., currently sits. Chalk owner Matt Mathey and David Lipka, who runs bars in Berwyn and Hillside, are collaborating on the rebranding, which should be finished sometime in the next few weeks, in mid-July.
"I've been wanting to open a gay bar forever," Lipka said. "My whole position is to ignite some spark, some change on Madison Street…Let's get everybody moving and shaking again. Let's get things rocking and rolling."
A beer vendor introduced the pair about a year ago and they began brainstorming. Lipka, who is 34 years old, said he grew up going to some of Forest Park's now-closed gay bars, like The Nutbush on Harlem Avenue, and had always wanted to open one of his own. Mathey wanted to spur some new business at his bar.
Lipka said Oak Park and Berwyn, along with Evanston, have some of the largest gay populations in the Chicago area. Suburban gay bars, Lipka said, are few and far between. Hard Wood, then, will fill a clear niche on Madison Street that has been absent for several years.
Mathey agreed and said a slew of factors, including the '08-'09 economic downturn, changing habits of young people and the state-wide smoking ban, have slowed business all along Madison Street. Expanding food and drink options in nearby communities in Oak Park, Brookfield and Berwyn have siphoned customers away, too.
"I've been here a long time. Everything's just like spinning its wheels," Mathey said, referring to Madison Street. "There's just not enough people coming to this strip anymore. It's just not what it used to be."
Lipka said the bar's layout will be largely the same, although they have spent about $20,000 on new glassware, furniture, and a new bar backdrop. The floor was refinished, too. They've hired five or six new employees and are planning to add some light "artisanal" food items to the bar's offerings, alongside craft cocktails and beer.
"It's a little more upscale," Lipka said. "And service, exceptional service, is what we are really striving for.
The back patio is also transforming into a fully staffed tiki-style bar. The upstairs area, which previously hosted special events, like birthdays or DJ events, will now be open as a lounge space, with dancing.
The idea, Lipka said, is to fill the whole two-story space, which includes seating for about 170 people, all the time, as much as possible. He also added that the bar will most likely have karaoke, trivia, and bingo, with a "gay twist" and possibly drag shows or cabaret-style events in the upstairs area.
Mathey will still own the bar and Lipka will run day-to-day operations as general manager.
"I've been working on this for months," Lipka said. "Now it's crunch time."