For young foodies who like to hit the bottle without risking insufficient funds notifications from their banks, the BYOB dinner is the obvious choice for Stage One of any birthday celebration. For those who take their obsession to disturbingly hedonistic levels, Stage Two is yet another unique BYOB activity (in this case, a circus). But more on that later.
As for Stage One of my 23rd, fourteen of us were to dine at Café Gaudi (624 N. Ashland), where we would laugh about my past year's embarrassments as we sipped unlimited carafes of cheap wine-turned-sangria. However, as our cab caravan arrived at the restaurant, I was delivered a swift kick to my BYO ego: Café Gaudi closed early for Easter, despite having had a series of anticipatory conversations with an employee, Betty, regarding my reservation. (Later in the night, I sent an e-mail threatening to involve the Better Business Bureau. I did not follow through.)
Desperate times call for desperate measures -- unless you're in the POB (Periphery of Bucktown), a region densely populated with great BYOBs. An enterprising friend noted that Kin, a Japanese restaurant, was within walking distance. Within minutes, 14 of us were graciously seated at the elegant, unassuming sushi spot. I had been spared of the ultimate failure.
Even if it didn't push the envelope, Kin was excellent. The specialty rolls were not excessively pretentious, yet filled with fresh fish and light on the battered items, which can get excessive. The Sunny roll ($13), with soft shell crab, avocado, spicy mayo, spicy shrimp and chili oil was fantastic; the Number 10 ($13), with tuna, white tuna, jalapeño and spicy eel sauce, was the hands-down group favorite. Plus, the rolls were pretty big. And as for my annoying friends who took seriously the rampant salmonella outbreak of Spring 2012, the cooked Japanese entrees also proved to be a hit, many of them under ten dollars. To top it off, the staff somehow loved us.
Before long, we found ourselves at the amateur BYOB circus, El Circo Cheapo. Nestled in a somewhat bizarre, industrial area, this once-a-month endeavor was the site of Stage Two. We wandered haphazardly into the warehouse, occasionally guided by scribbled 8.5x11 "signs," wondering if we'd walked directly into some predictable horror film. Eventually, we found the large, airy room we were looking for and assumed our floor "seats" on the mat ($10, as opposed to $15 for folding chairs).
It was your typical circus -- well, not really. Introducing the event was a mulleted female ringleader who, in her monologue, challenged the males of the audience to locate their hypothetical ovaries. "Nope, a little lower," she muttered with a tinge of cockiness, anticipating the crowd's roar; with the wine setting in, I leave my hands on my "ovaries" for that awkward extra moment.
Though it was strangely quiet for a "drinking circus," we were able to behave for the first few acts, which consisted of minimalist acrobatics featuring rings, balance beams, trapezes and shockingly muscled trapeze artists. Though our constant lamentations of lost corkscrews and spilled wine grew louder, no one seemed bothered, and the emcee even flattered me with birthday attention.
"So you're a paralegal, Ben. Did you go to school for that?"
"No, I was a psych major."
"You guys are a mess."
As for the rest of the crowd -- they were kind of cool, in the sense that they nonchalantly sipped single bottles of premium Goose Island brews and failed to demonstrate any signs of intoxication. Among a sea of microbrews, however, surged our tidal wave of Three Buck Chuck as well as the new, atypical group favorite -- Effen Cucumber Vodka, with which we paid homage to past birthdays when it didn't feel passé to drink directly from the bottle.
Before long, our relative calm evaporated in tandem with our levels of hydration. My roommate began erupting in convulsions of laughter. Two friends wandered off into another room of the abandoned warehouse, only to return suspiciously sweaty. The other circus-goers scooted backward, afraid of contamination. I took a nap.
"I don't care if it's your birthday, but I need that section of the audience to be quiet for the last two acts. It's very distracting." I awoke, noting the emcee's unexpectedly caustic expression. Enraged at having been called out, however, my friends yelled even louder. "You're lucky to have us!" One shouted, before collapsing back toward the mat. The show wrapped up, and if anything, we were lucky to have not been escorted out.
The verdict? Those expecting animals, midgets, noise, and eight-dollar snow cones should report directly to Barnum & Baileys. If you are fonder of graceful, impressive Cirque du Soleil-esque acrobatics, then this is a better fit. Just bring beer, not vodka.
The next bout of El Circo Cheapo occurs Saturday, June 2nd. Tickets are still available. Just don't say that you heard about it from me.
Kin - 933 N. Ashland, Noble Square
El Circo Cheapo - 2041 W. Caroll, West Town