Hamburger Mary’s, the drag show lounge next door to Oak Park Brewing Company, opened last Friday night, bringing a sassy edge to Oak Park Avenue after dark.

Before the show, I chatted with Brandon Wright, who with Ashley Wright, his brother, and Jim Cozzens (“I’m the straight guy,” Cozzens offered), own both Hamburger Mary’s and the Oak Park Brewing Company. I asked Brandon why he chose Oak Park, and he explained, “We’ve been coming to Oak Park a lot for the beer festival, the Oak Park Microbrew Review, and our sister location, Hamburger Mary’s in Andersonville, also has a brewery component. So it was a natural fit for this split-concept.”

“Oak Park seems perfect,” Ashley agrees, “because there wasn’t anything like us here.” True: the only thing that comes close to this new place was karaoke night at the old Nutbush on Harlem.

Hamburger Mary’s motto is “an open-air bar and grill for open-minded people,” and Brandon describes it as a “fun, festive environment where you can eat and have a flamboyant dining experience.” Flamboyancy comes in the campy, colorful room, heavy with photos of Marilyn, Joan and other archetypal feminine icons (not all females). The out-there vibe of the place comes through most dramatically, of course, in the drag performances that take place on weekend evenings.

“But it won’t be all drag shows,” said Brandon. “There will also be Ham-Bingo, which is where we partner with a local charity once per week to play bingo, hosted by a drag queen; there’s an entry fee and everything goes to the charity. And there will be a comedy night, starting near the end of May. Every night there will be something going on in the show lounge; it’s a cabaret, kind of like dinner theater.”

As Ashley explained, though, you have options. “This is two businesses in one, with the same menu, so you kind of pick your adventure. Do you want to go into the brew pub side, and maybe catch a game and have a beer, or go on the Mary’s side, which is kitschy: ‘gourmet burgers with a side of sass.’?”

Carolyn and I had a flight of beers and ales and they were fantastic, a beautiful range of flavors, with a few standouts. The Mary Hoppins is an American Pale Ale with slight bitterness from the hops balanced by bright citrusy flavors, a good beer to have with food. We liked the Imperial Red Ale, too, which also had dialed down bitterness coupled with slightly sweet caramel notes. All the beers we had were very good, and I’d gladly spend a few hours tasting through all the selections, which were uniformly well-made. This is perhaps not surprising in that both Brandon and Jim are trained as chemical engineers, so they have a professional understanding of the fermentation process and how to brew deliciousness from grains.

We just had a few nibbles at the bar. The big pretzel with cheese sauce is good for snacking, and the signature Mary Burger is hand-formed and well-prepared, served on a fluffy bun that held up under the weight of the burger. With a side of tater tots, this is perfectly fine bar food, but the chow takes a backseat to the beer…and the babes.

Before the show began, I chatted with Angel LeBare, emcee for the evening, performer, and partner of Dan Walsh, her manager, who also teaches choreography and other theater arts at Fenwick. LeBare has performed at the Andersonville Hamburger Mary’s, and also at Sidetrack and other Boystown venues. She’s tall, curvy and, like all the performers on Friday night, has pretty much perfect skin. If I were to describe a natural born female that way, I might be chastised for reducing a woman to a set of physical attributes; but drag queens are all about projecting an appearance, and so to evaluate appearance seems appreciated because all these ladies are using their illusion to best advantage.

I asked LeBare if she felt like a pioneer, venturing in to Oak Park to spread the flamboyant fun of drag: “I do, I do,” LeBare gushed, “and what we’re doing is gay and drag, and to see people embrace it and enjoy it is very exciting. We’re doing illusions and creating characters in a very Vegas style review.”

LeBare indulged me as I explained how, during the mid-70s, we lived in a Hyde Park commune, and one member of our mostly grad student “family” had a crush on a female impersonator (as they were called then) named Chilli Pepper. Sometimes he’d go to see Chilli perform at the Baton Lounge on Clark Street. Sometimes I’d go along. It was a riot, a kind of tongue-in-cheek, high-camp cross between performance art and karaoke.

“But ‘female impersonator,” I suggested to LeBare, seems like an old-timey term that is maybe no longer in use. She agreed: “There’s so many types of drag you can do that are not strictly female. Like there’s CIS-gendered, which is in-between, so you look feminine but you’re a boy, and though you have glitter and heels on, you’re not necessarily trying to look like a female. It’s evolved a lot in just the past three years. When I started out seven years ago, it was all about the Baton-style of female allusion. Tonight I have two transgendered performers coming in, and they’re going to be giving a very convincing illusion.”

As you can see in the picture above, LeBare is correct about glam illusionists Monica Beverly Hills (who you might have seen on RuPaul’s “Drag Race”) and Lila Star. Very convincing.

In the event you’ve never been to a drag show, here’s the routine: the ladies come out, looking fabulous, lip sync a tune (frequently, at least in my experience, a diva-esque number by someone like Cher or Beyonce) and then pass through the audience, collecting bills from appreciative patrons (pro tip: you can bring a bunch of singles, or get change at the bar, where they have singles clipped together in bunches of ten ready for you to take and tip; and you should tip, generously).

“Our drag shows are only in the evening, and you can bring your kids if you want,” said Brandon. “I know I would.”

Indeed, when we arrived around 6:45pm, the Hamburger Mary’s dining room hosted several families with kids, groups of older people but also tables of twenty-or-thirty-something women and men, a few couples, some groups, all very friendly and ready for a good time.

Though the families with kids cleared out before the first queen came on, there was probably no need to leave: “We try,” said Brandon, “to be very PG-13. At least for the 8 o’clock show; it’s gets a little more ‘adult’ at the 10 o’ clock show.” In no sense, though, will the performances at Hamburger Mary’s be “adult entertainment” – this is Oak Park, after all, and it’s safe to say that the one-two-punch of Oak Park Brewing Company and Hamburger Mary’s is going to help enliven this stretch of Oak Park Avenue.

Incidentally, Chilli Pepper is still performing at the Baton Lounge; I ran into her at The Boarding House in Chicago about two years ago: still fabulous.

Hamburger Mary’s

155 S. Oak Park Avenue

708-445-0272

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David Hammond

David Hammond, a corporate communications consultant and food journalist living in Oak Park, Illinois, is a founder and moderator of LTHForum.com, the 8,500 member Chicago-based culinary chat site. David...