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The Victorian Dining Room at The North Star Bar: An Intimate Space at a Famed Venue.

March 12, 2014

ADayWithoutLoveText by Christopher Malo. Images by G.W. Miller III.

The North Star Bar, situated in a 125-year-old building at 26th and Poplar streets, offers the perfect blend of a local bar and a great place catch a show. From Elliot Smith to Fall Out Boy, and the White Stripes to Life of Agony, countless bands – big, small and before they became big – have played the intimate space.

The best of both worlds, it is small enough to feel personal but big enough to be professionally run and actually sound great.

While the main stage has earned the North Star its reputation as one of the city’s live music staples, lesser known is the weekly acoustic music showcase, the Victorian Dining Room series, held Monday nights on the second floor.

Slide through the front door and up the stairs and you’ll find a dim room with little music equipment. The musicians on this cool fall evening are 25-year-old Brian Walker (pictured above) of A Day Without Love and 20-year-old Josh Miller. It is Walker’s second time playing the Victorian Dining Room and Miller’s first.

“It’s a different vibe here,” West Oak Lane native Walker says about the space. “It’s not as divey. It’s more classy.”

ADayWithoutLove02Walker plays first and the atmosphere is relaxed. He interacts with the small crowd between songs. Jokes are made. The geneses of songs are explained. When it is time to let his fingers work the guitar strings, Walker turns inward, connecting with the song.

But the music is just one of the attractions of the famed venue.

Clustered in various groups around the tables, people float in and out during the sets, often leaving empty-handed only to return with a beer. Occasionally, food arrives, such as the mandatory-to-try Brie L.T sandwich – a twist on the traditional B.L.T., made with Brie cheese and apple aioli, is served on a toasted baguette. More often than not, people return just with a brew.

If you walk in the front door of the North Star, you find yourself at the cozy bar where you will be greeted by a bartender offering more than 20 different bottled or canned beers, or one of the 12 drafts on rotation.

Happy hour runs from 5 to 7 p.m. and features $3 beers and reasonably priced yet delicious finger foods to nomnomnom on.

If you are feeling really hungry, they have that covered too. Larry is the modest, one-man operation who holds it down in the kitchen (but prefers to remain relatively anonymous). The menu is simple but not boring. It is one of the reasons bands love to eat here, especially if they are touring. Everything is fresh (except for the shrimp) and it shows in the quality and taste of what Larry pumps out. The mussels, the fish, everything are all fresh. The burgers are a lean 90/10 with very little fat. The bread comes from Wildflour Bakery. The fries are hand-cut. Not bad for your local watering hole.

Most evenings, the dining room adjacent to the bar is filled with happy patrons dining on the mussels, mac-n-cheese or quesadillas. On Monday nights, the room is packed with you Quizzo nuts. Occasionally, patrons will be serenaded by musicians who entice them to come hither up a flight of stairs to the Victorian Dining Room.

Sloan, who prefers not to reveal his last name, has owned The North Star for 13 years. Roughly six years ago he decided to transform the upstairs space from a work and storage space into a dining room. The walls and ceiling were painted, curtains were hung, track lighting installed and a sound system was brought in.

WhiteCheddarBoys01The pièce de résistance is actually something he trash-picked from the curb across the street. The large piece that now hangs on the wall behind the performance space is comprised of three long mirrors framed in an ornate, molded plaster frames (above, behind The White Cheddar Boys). They hang horizontally, creating a large art piece that fits the Victorian space and vibe perfectly.

Since the initial transformation, the room has been open for dinner nightly and occasionally booked for private events. Three years ago, the booker at the time, Andrew Miller, pitched an idea to make Mondays more profitable: combine dinner and music. The space offered great acoustics and an intimate feel in a setting with an unpretentious atmosphere. People could hang out, drink a few beers and grab a bite to eat, all while taking in the up-close musicians who wanted to unplug, in all senses of the word.

The free, weekly Victorian Dining Room series was born.

They gave it a run and right off the bat, it seemed to resonate with both musicians and with customers. On more than one occasion, Sloan heard the music escaping the Victorian Dining Room, which is near his office space, and he was forced to pay attention.

“When bands are unplugged and you strip them down, put them right there, it’s a whole different thing,” he notes.

It has never been a moneymaker. They sell some beer and a few dinners, but that has never been the point.

“Just the cool points is just awesome,” he adds. “It’s magic.”

When it is Miller’s turn, he plugs his ’64 Fender into the small amp and begins to sing and play. The talents of the Mayfair native as a songwriter, singer and guitar player surpass his age. By decades. The audience silently focuses as Miller soulfully works his vocal chords and fingers.

Not that it is all serious. He manages to wrap an enigma in an enigma as he folds a cover of Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise” inside of his cover of Blackstreet’s “No Diggity.” Well done.

The performance part of the evening comes to a close around 10 p.m. If only there was a relaxed place where artist and audience could grab another beer or two, hang out and talk. So everyone heads downstairs.

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