From 1991 to the early 2000s, it was practically impossible to go out in Chicago without visiting one of Dion Antic’s establishments. He was the innovator behind hotspots like Iggy’s, Bar Thirteen and Celluloid — but his prized jewel was Harry’s Velvet Room, a cigar-and-whisky bar, turned cigar-and-martini bar, turned cigar-and-Champagne lounge. During its 14-year run, the bar played host to countless celebrities (leaving Antic with a slew of alcohol-fueled, A-list stories), including George Clooney, Michael Jordan and Perry Farrell. “It was pandemonium,” Antic, 50, remembers. “We had the king of Sweden there. … It was just that kind of thing, it was just fun.”
Now, the man with a thousand concepts — some of his other innovative spaces included the now shuttered Shady Lady, a Victorian burlesque; exotic cream cheese spot Bagel on Damen; and a bar dubbed Hell where guests walked through a faux dentist’s office — is returning to his roots: Last week, he reopened Harry’s Velvet Room in a new locale (1480 W. Webster), and with a more mature twist. The bar is more bistro/tavern in style, featuring a list of 13 craft cocktails, 13 French-inspired dishes and — unlike its predecessor — no bottle service. “This [time,] it’s all about the classics,” Antic explains. “This is about being an adult; it’s about being a lady, being a gentleman. Turn your cell phone off. Take the time to enjoy the room and, you know what? You can post a selfie later. It’s about growing up.”
An industry vet, Antic is certainly all grown up — but the knack for nightlife has been with him since he was a teen. “I was the kid in high school who threw the best parties, hands down. I used to dry-ice my house for Halloween [and] have flaming swordfights with a guy dressed as the Grim Reaper,” Antic laughs. “My mother ended up buying a bar [the now-closed Halftime Haven] and she said, ‘Take the parties out of the house, put them there.’ So I started running my first bar at 19.” At 22, he opened the first bar of his own, Sanctuary, in the Gold Coast. From there, it was a steady stream of openings until the late ’90s, when Antic had dozens of bars to his name.
Then, in 2001, things took a turn: Antic was in a motorcycle accident and his 10-year marriage dissolved. “I decided to get outta here,” he remembers. “[I thought,] ‘I’m done.’ I bought a house in LA.”
He returned five years later — older and maybe a bit wiser — but his mile-a-minute mind hasn’t slowed. “I’m always trying to be one step above. I love the creativity of [the industry]. I build the brands, I love putting it together and putting a story to it,” he says. “I don’t make a Jack and Coke better than anyone else — but I make the room around it a whole lot better. That’s me. I’m gonna build you a room you’ll never forget.”
Best story of all time: Dennis Rodman was there and I said, ‘Tell Dennis if he wants a cigar he’s got to sign the basketball that Scottie Pippen already signed.’ [Rodman] says, ‘Sneaky way to try to get me sign a ball … I like you.’ I drank more kamikazes and Grand Marnier with that guy … we became friends after that — all because I made him wait for a cigar.
I want to see Clooney. He is Harry’s Velvet Room. His sense of style and elegance — he’d be perfect. Or Kanye [West]. I’d love Kanye to walk in the door. You know why? So I can kick him out.
I love Bordel [1721 W. Divison]. It’s owned by a really good friend of mine, Daniel Alonso. Danny is like me: He’s all about the vision and creating an atmosphere.
Photo by Ramzi Dreessen