Hopleaf

5148 N. Clark St. 773-334-9851

Looks like: A European tavern, complete with vintage beer posters and a pot-bellied stove

Smells like: An herbal mix of celery, thyme, bay leaf and wheat beer that wafts from steaming bowls of the bar's near-legendary mussels ($13)

Sounds like: Conversation! (It's this thing people used to do before every bar had a TV or DJ.)

 

Before Chicago had dozens of beer festivals, an official craft beer week and new breweries opening monthly, Chicago had Hopleaf. For 21 years, this Belgian-leaning bar has been the beer drinker's Delphi, a place to come in search of new experiences, guidance and maybe even enlightenment at the bottom of a pint glass. Your oracles, oh seekers of brew wisdom, are Michael and Louise Roper, the husband-and-wife duo who still preside over the tavern most of the 365 days a year that the bar is open.

"When we first opened our doors, there was a very limited selection of American craft beers and very little available in Belgian imports. I was taking anything I could get from Belgium," Michael Roper said. "Now there are hundreds of Belgian beers available; then, there were maybe a dozen. There are actually beers that we offered at that time that seemed among the more interesting ones that now I wouldn't carry."

Drinkers here probably can remember their first visits to Hopleaf; I certainly can. You enter as a novice, eyes glazing over with one glance at all the "brouwerijen" (Dutch for breweries) smattered through the encyclopedic menu. Luckily, on my first trip, I had two Franco/Belgian-phile friends to take my hand and guide it around the wooden handle of a Kwak beer glass. It's a strange contraption, this glass and its accompanying wooden stand, designed specifically for drinking Brouwerij Bosteels's Kwak amber ale ($7). Shaky, uncertain, trying so hard not to drop the glass or spill, I raised that malty, fruity ale to my lips and became a real beer drinker.

Yes, I had consumed beer before, but on that nose-chillingly cold night when I trekked from Evanston into the warm, amber-lit glow of Hopleaf, I saw what great beer served in a great bar can mean to people. There are no TVs and the music is barely perceptible when the bar is full, leaving just the sound of stories, chatter, laughter and memories skidding along exposed brick walls and snaking between clinking glasses.

"I think that people should just drink, eat and talk," Michael Roper said. "Anything that distracts them from drinking, eating and talking, I don't want in my place."

The bar has undergone one major change since my first visit, expanding last year to add much-needed additional seating and kitchen space. Finally, Roper said, Hopleaf is where he wants it.

"It's as big as we ever want to be. There never will be a Hopleaf II," he said. "The space that we have now is sort of the ultimate realization of what we always wanted Hopleaf to be."

kbernot@tribune.com | @redeyeeatdrink