Chicago’s Boystown Needed More Gay Bars. John Dalton and Stu Zirin Answered the Call.

Their Chicago bars welcome and celebrate the LGBTQ+ community all year long.

4 min read
Bowl of nachos

It’s been two years since joyful crowds, rainbow flags, and balloon-filled letters spelling out “Pride” have gathered along Broadway Street in Chicago. And after a tumultuous stretch of pandemic living and political division, Chicago’s Pride Parade couldn’t have returned at a better time. 

“Pride parades are more valuable than ever. We need to be visible,” says restaurateur John Dalton. “Times are changing, and we want to stay on the forefront.” 

He and business partner Stu Zirin have long been cultivating space for the LGBTQ+ community in Chicago’s Boystown neighborhood. The two met in the early 2000s when Zirin was hosting weekly dinner parties and often asking his guests to help in the kitchen. “He realized I wasn’t a cook, but I was into mixology,” says Dalton with a chuckle. “So I began pairing all the courses with drinks. That’s how we became business partners.” 

Their first venture was the groundbreaking minibar; Out included it in its 200 of the Greatest Gay Bars in the World list in 2013. “It was the first upscale gay bar in Chicago,” Dalton remembers. “It attracted a customer who wanted to get dressed up and go out, and that wasn’t available to the gay community at the time. We were bringing downtown to the community.” 

They had to close minibar in 2016, but continued to build spaces for the LGTBQ community. There’s D.S. Tequila Co., an homage to Dalton’s Texas upbringing and love of entertaining, which translates to what he calls “taking what most people traditionally eat in a bar and tacoizing it.” That means sweet-savory bourbon chicken topped with crispy onion strings; shrimp marinated in tequila, fired up, and served with a pineapple salsa; and the perennially popular coffee-rubbed steak tacos, invented at one of Zirin’s dinner parties. “We can never take that one off the menu,” Dalton says.  

Then there’s Crispy Chicks, which started out as a fried chicken delivery operation and recently opened as a casual dining space. The name nods to their Nashville-style tenders, but the sleeper hit is the green chili fries, starring a sour-spicy tomatillo chili. Naturally, it’s another dinner party recipe. 

D.S. Tequila Co.’s LGBTQ+ Burger drips with queso — there’s that Texas influence again — and is stacked with lettuce, bacon, tomato, and guacamole, with $1 from every burger going to support a LGBTQ+ focused organization. This year, the duo is donating to Affinity Community Services, a Black- and LGBTQ+ led social justice organization. 

The parade route passes both Crispy Chicks and D.S. Tequila Co. this year, but their role in the community goes well beyond one day in one month. “There is a comfort in going somewhere where you know the people coming in,” Dalton says. “Safe spaces are important. There will always be a place for gay bars within our community.”