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Maria's Community Liquors Forces Bridgeport Into Modernity

By Chuck Sudo in Food on Aug 31, 2010 7:30PM

In 1997 I was living in the Ukrainian Village exactly two blocks away from Tuman's, back when it was known - rightly so - as the "alcohol abuse center." $2 Guinness and $3 martinis meant that you could walk in with $10 and leave three sheets to the wind, with change in your pocket for tacos. That year, Tuman's made Chicago magazine's Best Bars issue. My then-roommate and I had moved out of the neighborhood by then, but we went back to visit a year or so after the issue hit the stands. By then, Tuman's was on the road to becoming what it is today - a shadow of its former self. Gold Coast types mingled with bike messengers, neighborhood regulars still clinging to cheap rents, and future drug casualties. The biggest change back then wasn't the variety of red and white wine, but the floor. Instead of rehabbing the old wood, they laid it out in brick. One of the bartenders half-jokingly told me that Bill Tuman did that because it was easier to hose down the vomit at the end of the night instead of mopping it up.

When word spread that Lumpen publisher/gallery curator/union carpenter and renaissance man Ed Marszewski and his brother Mike were rehabbing his mother's bar at 960 W. 31st St., I was struck thinking up parallels to Tuman's that only grew more striking once Kevin Robinson invoked the federal "Back In My Day" Act of 1908."I'm both excited and bummed," he said. Why? "Maria's was kind of my place and now it's cool."

Kevin holds the dive bar to an even higher romantic notion than I. While Kaplan's Liquors (aka Maria's) had most of the elements of a classic dive, it was also in serious need of a makeover. Kevin can wax nostalgic about the smell of 30 years of caked urine coming from the men's room; my natural impulse is to dry heave while grabing a sixer to go. With the Marszewski brothers taking over the operations of the bar from mother Maria, Ed put his carpentry skills to use to bring Maria's kicking and screaming into the 21st Century. This isn't just a makeover - it's a full-on facelift. It's like that cackling crazy lady who walks around the neighborhood with clown red hair was taken off the streets and replaced by Christina Hendricks.

The newly christened Maria's Packaged Goods and Community Bar retains an accessible feel for longtime residents, newer folks moving to the neighborhood and the artist and hipster communities Ed Marszewski has cultivated in close to 20 years around town. Friday's opening night was one of the most laid back, cool vibes I've had in a bar in ages. DJ Jon Bryl spun an eclectic collection of deep Southern Soul, glam rock, funk, jazz and disco, while Bobby Conn brought the weirdness only he can bring. In the packaged good part of the shop, six-packs of Stone IPA sat in one cooler, spitting distance from another cooler loaded with Mad Dog 20/20, while Sutter Home wines shared shelf space with better quality name brands. A wooden cooler has been refurbished and served to separate the package goods part of Maria's from the newly renovated lounge and bar, with the door to that cooler serving as the entrance.

And what an entrance. The Marszewskis completely gutted the former bar space, removing decades worth of detritus and the collection of over 100 ventriloquist dummies that most likely served to keep the back bar from falling onto drinkers. In its place is a solid oak bar, a beer menu of 99 bottles and ten drafts and a lounge area that maximizes its limited square footage expertly. With the new butcher block tables brought in for larger parties to sit, the lounge reminded me not of any other bar, but avec. This is one laid back lounge.

The aforementioned beer menu has selections that cater to both the wino and beer geek. Heineken, Corona and PBR stand shoulder to shoulder with some strong but basic craft beer selections. The cocktail menu, which was erroneously reported to have been developed by the Whistler's Paul McGee, is probably the most intriguing aspect of Maria's. In keeping with the Marszewski's mission that Maria's is a community bar, the cocktail menu will be an ever-developing beast with recipes provided by local residents. Opening night, I had a Filbert's Highball containing Cuervo, Filbert's grapefruit soda and lime while a friend declared his Dark and Stormy Night in Bridgeport to be perfectly fashioned. Of the cocktails currently on the menu, most of them are simple but tasty highballs that, like the alternate universe Nick the Bartender in "It's A Wonderful Life," are hard drinks for people who want to get drunk fast. They're also reasonably priced, at an average of $6. As the cocktail list evolves, folks whose drinks make the list will have opportunities to debut the drink with a bartending shift.

As a longtime Bridgeport resident, I've seen some good bars come and go in the 'hood. Maria's phoenix-like rebirth is the best thing to happen to the "neighborhood of mayors" since Puffer's became Mitchell's Tap and Bernice's Tavern started diversifying their beer list to accommodate the exodus that followed. Maria's also stands as an example of Ed Marszewski's philosophy of Bridgeport as the "Community of the Future."

Maria's Packaged Goods and Community Liquors: 960 W. 31st St. 773-890-0588. 11 a.m. - 2 a.m. Sunday through Friday, 11 a.m. - 3 a.m. Saturday. the bar and lounge open 6 p.m. daily.