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Songs from a Jar 

Life off the wagon at Liberty Valance.

click to enlarge food28_liberty_200.jpg

Spoiled member of Generation Y that I am, I was irked a few years ago when my 16th birthday involved brunch — pancakes and the elderly — at Liberty Valance instead of, say, a Porsche and a Destiny's Child concert, a la “My Super Sweet 16.”

“It's a South Side classic,” my dad, a lifetime Forest Hill resident, explained. I've since fallen for the place's cowboy kitsch — and amazing food — I don't know how I missed that before. I am eternally grateful that I dined there before its Conestoga wagon entrance was blown off the front, like a tumbleweed of personality lost in the winds of McDonaldization.

“When the landlords made us get rid of that [wagon],” owner Babs Stout says, “it really hurt business for a while. People thought we were closed.” Stout, who's been coming to Liberty Valance her whole life, bought the 30-year-old business two years ago. The first thing she did was set up for karaoke, clearing space for a stage and turning the jigsaw puzzle of eating nooks into a more open environment. Though not a singer herself, Stout loves going out to karaoke bars with friends. She thought karaoke nights at Liberty Valance might be good for business. She was very, very right.

Liberty Valance's friendly staff, devoted regulars and remarkably inclusive song list have brought in a variety of people, from hipsters to crooners in their 70s. You could say the crowd's gotten younger and hipper, which it has, but that hasn't repelled Liberty Valance's already wide and loyal fan base. Country is still the favored song genre, but Stout maintains that “a little bit of everything” gets sung nightly. Rather than citing specific hits, Stout describes the crowd's favorite songs as “ones where the audience gets involved … they like it when there's feedback.” Regardless of song or talent displayed, the crowd is energetic and supportive. (I know this from personal experience. People even cheered for my lame “Summer Lovin.'”)

Cheap pitchers of beer poured into Ball jars fuel most of the audience, but there are also the restaurant's famous Bloody Marys. “It's like a double,” Stout says. The potent cocktail is what Liberty Valance is most known for, even more so than for the Conestoga. If only I'd been old enough to have one at my initial brunch, I probably would have warmed up to the idea of Liberty Valance much sooner. S

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