At the corner of Sherman and Davis, where the water fountain, normally flushed with purple in the late fall, lay barren, a bar bustles. Townies and upperclassmen alike spread across the obliquely shaped, wooden counter, sipping hoppy delights. Atop the beers on tap and the refrigerators are an assortment of empty bottles signed by new customers at the abitrary request of bartenders. As if the dim interior wasn't distracting enough, the flat-screened television sets hanging above the bar featured NBA on TNT, the Blackhawks game and the Big Ten Network – a sight fit for not only the Chicago sports fan, but also the casual observer.
The night began with a phone call. My buddy was on his way to the spot dangerously close to our apartment in Fountain Square. I trudged in the gusty Chicago wind for less than a block, my hands deep in my pockets, my chin burrowed in the collar of my sweatshirt.
I wonder if the setup is too fitting for a town where a franchise like World of Beer wouldn't have existed 41 years ago, when Evanston first granted a liquor license. It resides in the same spot where the Tilted Kilt tried, and failed, to gain traction (but somehow garnered plenty of attention). Two blocks away, the trifecta of college bars by Northwestern student standards – The Keg, Nevin's and Prairie Moon – offer an experience quite different from that of World of Beer. To the west, Bat 17 waits with beer towers nestled atop plastic helmets and mouth-watering sandwiches. Walk along Church street toward the Celtic Knot for the pub atmosphere.
The only other alcohol available is the classic selection of wine bottles, from Chardonnay to Pinot Noir. There are no straight shots, apart from that of beer. When I flipped toward the menu's back pages, I found a sparse food menu, filled with bar food. You can order chips and salsa with a bratwurst on the side. But the options are limited for a reason. On the back of the menu, the phone number for Giordanos is given. World of Beer, it just so happens, is "BYOF" – bring your own food. You can order dinner from local restaurants straight to your seat, a convenience for a party of four or for that moment when you feel the need to satiate your palate with pure cholesteral wrapped in Texas toast from Cheesie's.
With roughly 50 drafts on tap, choosing a beer, while daunting, is exhilarating. Disregard the fact that there are more than 500 bottles from 36 different countries in a more comprehensive menu. Disregard the beer shots and mixed drafts. Why would anyone want a shot of beer or a mixed draft, when one can savor the sweet taste of pilsner or the bitter taste of a India pale ale?
Instead, look at the adventure before you. Flip through the plastic-wrapped menu and fall into utter bewilderment over the sheer number of beers from across the globe at your disposal. From the smooth taste of Small Town Brewery's Not Your Father's Root Beer to the mild, fruity flavor of Paulaner Hefe-Weizen, each visit brings, at its heart, a question of what to try next, of what need can I fulfill now.
The prices for a beer are as low as $4.50 and as high as $12, maybe more, depending on how unique a beer you want to find. If I'm looking to quench a specific fix, I open my World of Beer app and filter my selection by region (yes, there's an app for that. It's an app for everyone, but loyalty club members can track how many different beers one has purchased since signing up for the program. I see how this may come off as pretentious, but quite frankly, that's revolutionary in the bar industry.) Shake your smartphone, and a random beer appears. It provides the details for each beer, from color to origin, along with a description of the taste you might experience.
Whether or not the bartenders will help guide you in the process, however, is doubtful. On this night, I sat at one corner of the counter near the front entrance and sipped a Purple Haze (only fitting for an Evanston bar). My buddy had recommended it to me with an urgent plea and, without much insistence, our bartender agreed.
But when I came back to sit at a table days later, I asked another bartender for a recommendation. With her help, I received a sample of Bell's Java Stout, a dark, creamy coffee-flavored ale that filled my mouth with regret. But it was only a sip, and minutes later, I found a Red Stripe in my hands, the man's slogan echoing in my ear with each drink. For the best service, I would arrive early on the weekend, as the bar tends to fill up, leaving the platoon of bartenders scrambling around to please each patron. Or go on a weeknight, when the loyal few arrive and when discounts invoke a guttural appreciation for bittersweet commercialism.
Yet, as I sat at the bar with my buddy, I felt drawn to this place's casual atmosphere. I forgot about the rancor that pervades the Keg or Nevin's. I forgot that this experience has probably been replicated and tweaked in 36 taverns in 11 states. Instead, as an '80s cover band performs in the background, I appreciate the drink in front of me, a sweet, tarty, berry-flavored beer from Abita Springs, La.
At this stage of my life, I have one foot in a townie's home and another in a student's. Perhaps that's why I discredit the idea behind a beer shot and prefer to enjoy a new drink each visit. World of Beer isn't a place where you drink to excess. Rather, it's a place where you kick back, watch TV and enjoy the beer in front of you. It's a time to break free from that inclination to buy the same drink over and over again or switch to liquor once the time feels proper. What World of Beer lacks in the cultivated relationship between the patron and bartenders, it makes up in ecclectism.
Editor's note, Thurs. Jan. 31 at 7:28 p.m.: The original version of this story originally categorized wine as hard liquor. Thanks to commenter Beer-me for pointing out the error.