Hang time at Hizemans

May 2021 View more

As with many things in the hypercompetitive world of sports, the calculus at work in the sports bar arena often tends toward the equation of “bigger = better,” with many establishments leaning into this mindset by trumpeting their hangar-like square footage, encyclopedic menus, and can-you-top-this food and drink specials that sometimes read more like dares than enticements.

But the crew behind the popular Empire Burger Bar is looking to upend that stereotypical blueprint with its new sports bar in downtown Naperville. With a name that plays on that of the Heisman Trophy of college football fame, Hizemans (218 S. Washington St., 630.362.6872, hizemans.com) gives a stiff-arm to any preconceived notion of what a place like this can, or should, be. The requisite high-definition buffet of televised competition is offered up, of course, but all within the cozier and higher-end confines of a different kind of sports bar.

“We can see almost anyone coming in to enjoy themselves at Hizemans,” says owner Will Cullen. “Whether it’s a group of girlfriends sharing some punch bowls, a family coming in for dinner, or a bunch of guys coming to watch the game, our goal was to take the sports viewing experience to a new level in a more polished but still casual setting.”

Big Bird chicken sandwich

Small Ball
Wedged into a tight spot on Washington, Hizemans’ long, narrow footprint lends itself to a more intimate and urban feel than the typical sprawling warehouse setup of so many of its sports bar brethren (this writer was immediately reminded of a more upscale version of McGee’s Tavern & Grille near the DePaul University campus in Lincoln Park [insert your own blurry collegiate memory here]). While the tufted leather booths, antique brass lighting, and custom maple bar top could lead one to believe Hizemans just might be outkicking its coverage a bit, the 20-foot wall of televisions showing everything from baseball to bowling to badminton brings everything back into focus. Despite the luxe accoutrements, at its heart this is still just a great place to watch the game.

In keeping with the higher-end and more condensed scene, the menu here, too, is a compact but elevated take on the traditional sports bar lineup. While the beverage slate is fairly expansive—with more than two dozen draft and canned beer selections sharing space with a host of agaves, whiskeys, and craft cocktails like the H.O.F. (Hall of Fame), a newfangled old-fashioned made with Redwood bourbon and bacon-infused maple syrup—the food selection is a more streamlined affair, covering the tried-and-true sports bar bases while managing to work in a few signature moves.

Ecto cooler

Next Level
Buffalo chicken wings are, of course, one of those sports bar staples. And while Hizemans naturally serves up the wings themselves (albeit in their whole free-range form here, a far cry from the 10-cent breaded bones at many places), we decided to get our Buffalo fix from the Buff Chix waffle fries—a tangy, messy, delicious poutine platter. Given the corporate lineage, it was not at all surprising to find a trio of solid burger creations on the menu, including the cheese-from-all-angles Patty Lucy. But we opted instead for a couple of sandwiches: one right down the middle, the other much more of a curveball.

Even as we live through what historians will surely deem peak chicken sandwich times, the Hizemans Big Bird stands out—not for any particular novelty, mind you, but rather as a straightforward, well-executed entry that nevertheless manages to rise above its simplicity. The Elote Dog, meanwhile, has no obvious comparative peer. A bit of an aesthetic train wreck (though no more so than a classic Chicago-style dog), this Wagyu beef dog truly delivers in the flavor department, tucked beneath a blanket of nontraditional toppings like bacon, charred corn, elote slaw, queso fresco, jalapeño crema, and cilantro. Unconventional to be sure, but as hot dogs go, this is an all-star turn.

Looking to send our sweet tooth out smiling—and armed with memories of the greasy-good doughnuts at Empire—we finished up with an order of the funnel fries: deep fried dough with cinnamon sugar, powdered sugar, and chocolate sauce, the lone dessert on the menu. Not surprisingly, they turned out to be very much like the standard carnival treat, but somehow just a few steps up. And therefore an apt representation of the overall Hizemans philosophy.

Photo courtesy Hizemans