Light My Firey Piano Bar

3:10 p.m. Jan. 8, 2008

With apologies to the late–and underrated Dan Fogelberg—it isn’t the “Same Old Lang Syne” at Sabatino’s restaurant on the northwest side of Chicago.

The Northern Italian restaurant and piano bar was hit by a Jan. 3 fire.

The blaze was contained to the food prep area in the back of the restaurant and damaged the roof of the mid-1980s eatery. Last week I drove by Sabatino’s and it looks in good enough shape for a comeback. Sabatino’s wasn’t my favorite Italian restaurant in Chicago (think LaScarola), but it was my favorite piano bar.

The regulars nestled around the seven seats at the piano seemed to be from Portage Park or Brooklyn, N.Y. The muscular aura worked especially well in the dimly lit mystery of Sabatino’s. The piano bar backdrop featured stained glass windows replete with pierced hearts.

I hope Sabatino’s don’t go changing.

This weekend I’m heading to Minneapolis to hang around Nye’s Polanise, another legendary piano bar. What happened to the rest of America’s piano bars? Any suggestions? Any “Feelings?”

I once tried to pay a compliment to Vic Damone suggesting he was one of America’s last great saloon/piano bar singers………


……My premise was that saloon singers are different that lounge singers. Lounge singers are more contemporary. Saloon singers love the classics. “I don’t think of myself as a saloon singer,” Damone bristled. “If I did, I’d be a drunk. I’d say, ‘Let me go drink, I don’t give a damm about my health, I don’t give a damn about my audience. I’ll just go out and sing the blues. I take better care of myself than that.”

Lounge singers and piano men have great names.

Some of my favorites that have passed through Chicago include Buddy Charles, Ginger Tam, Dino Marino, Peter Saxe (who plays piano of course) and Hots Michaels from the Chicago Chop House.

Hots was featured in Studs Terkel’s “Working.” Hots raised championship hogs in the backyard of his Southwest side home, invented a dry milk bubble bath and once made burial vaults for a living. Hots had claimed to have played the first piano bar in the world, when the College Inn Lounge opened in 1952 at the old Sherman House in the Loop. “I wasn’t born there, but I died there,” Hots told me in 1992.

Hots passed away on Nov, 4, 2006. A touch of piano bar class went with him. Here’s hoping Sabatino’s can restore some of that.

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