CHICAGO — When a new sports bar opens here and the owners want to support a team from outside the city — a designated home base for expatriate fans, in other words — they hold a series of tryouts.
When The Standard, a watering hole in the Wicker Park neighborhood, decided it wanted to pick a fan base to support, it followed the local custom.
Almost six years ago now, The Standard reached out to local alumni associations looking for a new base of operations, and, over three weeks, the owners let fans show up on specified college football game days. Whichever day had the most fans won The Standard’s support.
First up was LSU.
Tigers fans turned out in droves, cramming the bar on Milwaukee Avenue. It was more people than they expected for a trial run, and the crowd, as anybody who spent a game day in Baton Rouge can attest, wasn’t shy about buying drinks.
The next weekend was Penn State — and the bar was once again flooded with purple and gold. There was supposed to be a third contestant the next weekend, but by that point there was little need to delay the inevitable.
Ever since, The Standard has been the LSU bar in Chicago — a place where fans from miles around can go any time the Tigers are on TV.
But for many, The Standard — and hundreds of alumni bars around the country just like it — isn’t simply about having a place to watch the game and have a beer.
For the out-of-towners and passersby, it’s a lifeboat, a suitable substitute to being at home and watching the game in your lucky chair or in Alex Box Stadium. The bar is a piece of Baton Rouge where you know you’ll be able to cheer as loudly as you want — because everyone else will be doing the same.
For the regulars, though, the bar is something more. They’ve built a community — a family even — where, if only for a few hours a couple of times a month, they can be transported back to Walk-ons or Happy’s or whatever their bar of choice was in their younger years.
A thousand miles away, the LSU bar is a little oasis of home.
Google to the rescue
The story of how people discover The Standard is almost always the same: They came to the city, and the first thing they did was use Google to search “LSU alumni bar Chicago.”
That’s how Daniel Hawkes, The Standard’s assistant general manager and an LSU graduate, discovered it when he moved from New Orleans. Before he decided where he would move, he applied for jobs at LSU bars in Los Angeles (2nd Half Sports Grill), New York (Legends) and Chicago. He was offered the jobs in Chicago and New York but chose to stay in the Central time zone.
Four years later, he’s the liaison between the local alumni chapter and the bar.
His most important job is making sure The Standard delivers an authentic game-day experience. Every football Saturday, the bar is filled with LSU fans who arrive several hours before kickoff. For some, that means driving more than an hour just to watch the same broadcast they could see from home. Those within the city limits often host pregame “tailgates” before heading to the bar.
When the game starts, Hawkes controls the sound system to make sure the usual array of game-day songs play at the right moment: "Tiger Rag" after scores, "I’m From Louisiana" at kickoff, all the first-, second- and third-down songs, "Callin’ Baton Rouge" and anything else you’d hear in Tiger Stadium. And at The Standard, there’s no holding back when "Neck" comes on.
If a fan of another school or team is unlucky enough to walk into the bar while the Tigers are playing, there will be no concessions made — outside of maybe a single screen to the side. The Standard is an LSU bar first and foremost.
On Sunday night, as the LSU baseball team battled Mississippi State for a spot in the College World Series, Hawkes refused to change the majority of The Standard’s 17 TVs or the sound system from the Tigers — ignoring the protests of several fans wanting to watch the Stanley Cup Finals or the World Cup qualifier between the U.S. and Mexico being played at the same time.
And, as the game pushed into Monday morning and the bar normally would close, Hawkes refused to end the night until he saw the Tigers dogpile — which came a little after 1:30 a.m.
Hawkes brought with him a few of the liquor shots he learned during his days bartending on Third Street in Baton Rouge. He has Abita beer shipped in all year long — including the annual phenomena that is Abita Strawberry, often a bigger draw than the games.
The Standard hosts crawfish boils throughout the spring, including one last week during the NCAA baseball regionals. And during special events, the kitchen staff uses the Hawkes family's jambalaya recipe to make sure there are no issues with authenticity.
Basically, if you can find it in Baton Rouge, you can find it at The Standard.
“We try to make it as (authentic) as possible,” Hawkes said. “If we can’t do that with the food, we can still try to do that with your Abita beer. … I’m usually up there (running the sound system), so we do all the first down, second down, all that stuff to make it feel like a home away from home.”
Google is how Eric Gatlin, a recent graduate of LSU-Shreveport, found himself at The Standard on Saturday for the first game of the super regional. He moved to town only a few days earlier and wanted to find that little piece of Louisiana in his new home.
But there weren’t many LSU fans there to watch the dramatic come-from-behind victory. Most alumni bars have their biggest showings during football season, and this past weekend there were several festivals around Chicago. Hawkes said he expects attendance to reach near-football-season levels while the Tigers are in Omaha, Nebraska, for the CWS.
In return for their loyalty, The Standard scored visits from key LSU figures. University President F. King Alexander stopped by to watch a game against Florida, and former defensive lineman Ego Ferguson, who then was with the Chicago Bears, hosted an event last year.
To complete the social calendar, The Standard hosts a Mardi Gras party each spring. But even when most people there can't tell you the difference between étouffée and a beignet, a few LSU faithful still mark out their spot at the bar.
“I don’t know anybody in Chicago,” Gatlin said. “Just moved here, so I wanted to go somewhere where we see a fan or two. … They have more LSU flags than Cubs or Milwaukee Brewers flags. It’s a legit LSU bar. I’ll be coming back for the rest of the baseball series and then football season.”
Tigers by association
The LSU Alumni Association has more than 200,000 Tigers from around the world, the group’s website boasts. It has 130 chapters, including 116 in the U.S. outside of Louisiana and 14 international chapters as far away as Tokyo and Saudi Arabia.
The biggest chapters are obviously in south Louisiana, but Houston can claim up to 400 people on an average game day at Christian's Tailgate in the Houston Heights neighborhood. And in the Southern California chapter, up to 400 will gather in Manhattan Beach for big SEC football games and around 60 to 200 will come together for other events.
Most groups host crawfish boils several times a year and sell LSU merchandise to raise money to send back to the university for scholarship funds. This weekend, the Houston chapter is putting on its annual golf tournament; it will host a clay shooting tournament later in the year.
But no matter where you go, one thing stays the same: On game day, there’s going to be at least one bar full of LSU fans shouting Garth Brooks lyrics at the top of their lungs.
“There’s about 20 of us that are just volunteers; we have our own full-time jobs. We meet once a month and, basically, our main mission is to fundraise and give back to LSU through scholarship or building improvements or campus improvements,” LSU Houston alumni association president Tiffany Monette said. “Monthly we do happy hours where we network and get to know other alumni in the community. A major selling point for us: Houston is a huge oil and gas community, so people who are coming from LSU who have graduated and looking for jobs, it’s a good way to network, a good way to meet people and form friendships.”
The Chicago alumni chapter is in transition: Ali Reading and Andrew Kaufman plan to take over in the fall. For now, the Chicago chapter is more casual in its fundraising and organization, which the pair of 2015 graduates hope to change in the next year.
But their motivation isn’t just to give LSU a boost; The Standard has become a second family over the past year. It’s the foundation of their social life and where they’ve met some of their closest friends since moving to the city a year and a half ago.
Last Thanksgiving, with Kaufman’s family in New Orleans and Reading’s in North Carolina, they spent the holiday with a couple they met at The Standard — complete with a turducken, gumbo and booze shipped in from Louisiana.
“It’s not easy to leave your family, it’s not easy to leave your friends, it’s not easy to leave people who know SEC tailgating," Reading said. "Going to The Standard, we go every single game day, and we’re there three hours beforehand, at least, and we’d stay several hours after. It’s home to us.”
More than LSU
Having a piece of Baton Rouge life far away from home goes farther than the walls of a single bar.
The designated Alabama bar in Chicago is the Houndstooth Saloon, a few miles to the north in Wrigleyville. Its story is similar to The Standard’s: It’s packed on game day with a few hundred Alabama fans, and it keeps up with all of the school traditions, right down to its rivalry with LSU.
About a year ago, an Alabama fan took a knife to the inflatable Mike the Tiger that sat in front of The Standard. He’s still there every Saturday thanks to a little surgical patchwork with duct tape, but Hawkes said the bar has been searching for a replacement for close to a year, with no luck.
“The guy who owns the Alabama bar is best friends with the guy who was the (former general manager) of The Standard, so even that had a rivalry to it with our two bars,” Hawkes said. “Whenever LSU and Alabama would play, it was like, 'What bar did better that day?' It gets into the petty stuff even though it’s 1,000 miles away.”
If LSU fans can’t make it to The Standard on Saturdays, right down the street is the Frontier, the unofficial Saints bar in town. It isn’t quite as formal of an association with the team, but head chef Brian Jupiter, a New Orleans native, has been bringing in pro football fans for the past four years with his New Orleans-influenced menu.
At Frontier, Saints fans can eat chargrilled oysters, gumbo, catfish, shrimp or even a full roasted alligator — and that’s just the everyday menu. Jupiter puts together special meals for game days, and a brass band plays on the outdoor patio.
On Sunday, Frontier held an all-you-can eat crawfish event: Jupiter shipped in 400 pounds of crawfish and prepared them in the traditional Cajun style. It’s one of the few places in Chicago, Jupiter said, where Louisiana cuisine is done right, and that’s what packs the bar with around 150 people each Sunday.
“I’ve been all over the city with Saints folks, and the thing that lacked was always the food,” Jupiter said. “It’d be like some half-assed po-boy because people didn’t know how it was supposed to be. I was finally like, ‘Screw it. I’m going to do it.’ ”
A new home
Hawkes and Reading said they try to make it back to Louisiana as often as they can, usually for a football game day.
No matter how many flags hang or how many pounds of crawfish get devoured, nothing can replace the feeling of Death Valley on Saturday night.
But that’s not always an option, given their long-distance ties. So for now, they sit back, order an Abita Strawberry, turn on the game and shout the alma mater with a few dozen of their new friends — those who share the same passion for the LSU Tigers, no matter where they are.
“It’s crucial to find that place that feels like Louisiana and feels like home and gives you that game-day experience where you can wear your jersey and Tiger ears and face paint,” Reading said. “I would bake cookies on weekends and decorate them with purple and gold and serve them to bartenders — because they’re family to us.”