The new Old Chicago in Eden Prairie

The Old Chicago chain of beer and pizza joints is re-making itself, and they're starting in Eden Prairie. Last week the Eden Prairie location celebrated its grand reopening by giving away pizza for a year to the first 100 people who came into the restaurant. This location is the showcase for what's to be at Old Chicago nationally. There's a new menu, a new look, and a whole new focus on beer.

According to Mark Newman, the guy who coordinates beer and spirits for the chain nationally, they are trying to restore the franchise to what it was when it opened in 1976. Old Chicago, he says, introduced the whole concept of the beer-centric bar. They started with 110 beers at a time when it wasn't easy even to find that many beers in the US. They helped to launched many of today's top craft beer brands, including New Belgium and Odell. But he laments that the chain lost its focus sometime in the 1990s. Now they want to get that focus back.

They've re-done everything at Old Chicago
They've re-done everything at Old Chicago

They've re-done the menu from the bottom up, removing many old items and adding new. Everything is now made in-house and from scratch. They have scrapped the schnick-schnack filled walls of the 1980s in favor of a modern, minimalist look.

The re-focusing on beer is most impressive. As part of the renovation of the Eden Prairie store, they ripped out the old draft system and installed new, state-of-the-art equipment. They increased the number of taps from 30 to 36 and decreased the number of macro American lagers to just three or four. Twenty-six of those taps are rotating craft beers. And there is a new emphasis on local. Newman says he wants all of the Old Chicago locations to reflect their communities. On a recent visit I counted 11 Minnesota taps and an even greater selection of local bottles.

Even the beer service has improved. All front-of-house staff goes through some basic beer education. Bartenders are required to pass the Certified Beer Server level of the Cicerone Certification Program. Wait staff are encouraged to do so. The servers actually have a clue about the beers they are pouring. And as you enjoy one beer they are likely to bring an unsolicited sample of something similar for you to try.

The icy shaker pints are gone. Beers are served in appropriate glassware that is kept at appropriate temperatures. Newman is pushing the notion of beer-clean glassware: glassware that is free of any residue and oils that kill beer foam. Beer in a properly cleaned glass will leave tell-tale lace down the side as you drink. Looking around the bar on a recent visit I saw lots of lace.

All in all I'm impressed with the new Old Chicago's commitment to beer, both in the big picture and the details. It's a good thing for beer when a national chain like Old Chicago becomes a leader in the proper service of better beer.

Michael Agnew
Certified Cicerone
A Perfect Pint

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