Gold Star Bar’s owner Susan Stursberg (l.) died in 2012; her mom runs the bar. [Gold Star Bar/Facebook]
CHICAGO — If the walls of Chicago’s oldest bars could talk, you would need to pull up a stool and stay longer than a while.
Man, the stories you’d hear — of bootlegged booze and secret doors, mobsters holding court and iconic movie scenes filmed, meet cutes ending in marriage. You might even hear a ghost story or two.
The colorful history of these bars goes back to Prohibition; a few even further. After the law was repealed in 1933, liquor licenses and, in some cases, name changes followed.
These aren’t all dives serving whiskey and blue jukebox tunes. You’ll find plenty of craft beers, jalapeno poppers and dude-bros.
But vestiges of the past remain. The neon sign above Gold Star Bar in West Town still announces “Furnished Rooms,” for rent by the hour during the building’s seedy hotel days, owner Mary Ann Reid said.
You might wonder why Schaller’s Pump, the Berghoff and Green Door Tavern are missing from this list. It’s true they’re very old, but they belonged in our roundup of the city’s oldest restaurants. They’re no longer strictly bars. You’ll eat well at all three.
This is where it gets tricky. There’s been a pub of some sort at 1758 N. Sedgwick St., where Marge’s is, since 1885, general manager Meg Comstock said. But it only became Marge’s in 1955, after a woman named Marge Landeck (or Lendeck or Lednick — the newspapers at the time couldn’t decide on one spelling) took it over.
Kasey’s went through a few iterations and name changes, too — a sitdown restaurant called George’s Busy Bee, then Chester’s Lounge, then Bernie’s 701 Club — until Casmir Weglarz bought it and renamed it Kasey’s Tavern in 1974, current owner Bill White said.
Harbee Liquors Tavern in Pilsen might have made the cut — the building has been around since the 1870s — but with owner Steve Frytz facing back taxes and his liquor license in limbo, the lights are off there, possibly for good.
Another curious case: Chipp Inn, a cash-only, drinks-only bar in a brick-front frame house on a quiet corner in Noble Square that might be the oldest bar in Chicago, if you believe the stories.
Framed photos and receipts in the back room indicate it has been a bar since at least the 1920s run by the Kruzel family for decades, but bartenders there say it goes back further to 1874 — though they’re not sure where exactly that year comes from or whether it was always called the Chipp Inn. It’s just what they’ve heard. The owner didn’t return calls for comment.
So for consistency’s sake, our list is based on the year a bar was founded under its current name. Argue all you want about this, maybe over a beer.
Al Capone was a regular at the Green Mill. [DNAinfo/Ted Cox]
1. Green Mill Cocktail Lounge, 4802 N. Broadway
The storied jazz bar opened in 1910 as part of a larger entertainment complex called the Green Mill Gardens. There was the lounge (that’s the original neon sign hanging outside), an upstairs ballroom, an adjoining restaurant and the outdoor gardens, according to Dave Jemilo, Green Mill’s owner since 1986. Al Capone hung out here. Thus, during Prohibition, the booze flowed. A door behind the bar leads to an underground tunnel used back then to move alcohol and no, you can’t go in. But live jazz, that you can hear nightly.
Southport Lanes, which opened in 1922, is in an original Schlitz Brewery tied-house. [Southport Lanes/Facebook]
2. Southport Lanes and Billiards, 3325 N. Southport Ave.
The building was one of several Schlitz tied-houses around town dating to the early 1900s, and the bar, serving only Schlitz beer, was called The Nook. In 1922, with Prohibition in effect and the bar now a speakeasy (complete with second-floor brothel), bowling lanes were put in — “Gave it an air of legitimacy,” owner Steve Soble said — and Southport Lanes was born. The dumbwaiter that carried drinks upstairs to the women and their, um, clients is in the area where you now rent your bowling shoes. Speaking of which, a round of bowling costs you $40 per lane per hour.
The Zebra Lounge was named after a bar in New York. [Zebra Lounge/Facebook]
3. Zebra Lounge, 1220 N. State St.
Inspired by a bar of the same name in New York City, the Zebra Lounge opened as a speakeasy in 1929 on the ground floor of what used to be a hotel; it’s now the Canterbury Court Apartments. Because this was Prohibition, the front door was locked and patrons entered through a back door, according to owner Michael Vaughn. Vaughn is the fourth owner in the bar’s history. In October 2014, he opened a second Zebra Lounge in Memphis. There’s live piano every night and a limited amount of zebra print in the decor.
The clubby interior of the Coq D’Or, which opened in 1933. [Drake Hotel]
4. Coq D’Or, 140 E. Walton Place
Prohibition was repealed on Dec. 5, 1933. The Coq D’Or opened inside the Drake Hotel the next day, nabbing the city’s second liquor license behind the Berghoff. A framed blurb about the historic occasion is posted outside the bar. Inside, it’s all dark wood and club chairs as you might expect. Whiskey was the pour of choice at the opening, reportedly at 40 cents a glass. Now, the half-dozen or so cocktails range from $11 to $16.
Jim and Margaret Durkin lived above the bar they opened in 1933. [DNAinfo/Janet Rausa Fuller]
5. Durkin’s, 810 W. Diversey Ave.
You know all those faux-Irish sports bars on the North Side with the gold lettered signs? Durkin’s is not one of them (well, except for its gold-lettered sign and the Pittsburgh Steelers fans who frequent it). Jim and Margaret Durkin opened the bar in 1933 and lived in the apartment above. “Jim was a city worker until drinking and diabetes got the best of him, so Margaret pretty much ran it. They were politically connected — Irish mafia,” said Jerry Olson, who found unmarked bottles of booze behind a wall in the basement when he bought the bar from the Durkins in 1974. Olson sold it 25 years later to current owner Tom Piazza.
Kelly’s Pub had a cameo in the movie “About Last Night.” [DNAinfo/Janet Rausa Fuller]
6. Kelly’s Pub, 949 W. Webster Ave.
Another legit Irish bar and a DePaul University sports faculty hangout next to the Brown Line tracks, Kelly’s has been owned by the same family since 1933. It had been a candy shop until Irish immigrants Frank and Loretta Kelly turned it into a bar. “There was the Italian bar across the street. Kelly’s was the Irish bar,” said John Kelly, who took it over from his parents in the late 1950s. John met his future wife, Polly, at the bar; they’ve been married for 52 years. That scene from “About Last Night” where Demi Moore and Elizabeth Perkins are drinking under the “L” tracks? That’s Kelly’s.
The same family has owned the Burwood Tap for three generations. [DNAinfo/Janet Rausa Fuller]
7. Burwood Tap, 724 W. Wrightwood Ave.
Leo Rompza opened the bar at the corner of Wrightwood and Burling in 1933. Before that, it had been an ice cream shop, which, given the timing, might have been code for speakeasy. Grandson A.J. Rompza now runs the popular hangout for young Lincoln Parkers. In 2003, bar employees turned an area across the street into a triage area after a porch collapsed during an overcrowded party at a nearby three-flat, killing 12 and injuring dozens.
Before it was a bar, Jake’s Pub was a candy shop where you could also buy booze. [DNAinfo/Janet Rausa Fuller]
8. Jake’s Pub, 2932 N. Clark St.
During Prohibition, Jake Rosenbloom sold sweets — and then some — out of his Clark St. candy store, and he, his wife and three kids lived in the back room. “They sold half-pints [of liquor] behind the bar, so if you were a neighbor, you could get a bottle on the sly,” said Scott Johnson, who has owned Jake’s for the past 20 years. In 1933, Rosenbloom made Jake’s Pub official. The bar doesn’t serve food, not a single chicken wing, but if you’re hungry, you can order from a stack of restaurant menus kept behind the bar.
Gold Star Bar’s signature neon sign stands out on Division Street. [Gold Star Bar/Facebook]
9. Gold Star Bar, 1755 W. Division St.
Here is what owner Mary Ann Reid knows about her cozy joint: A Polish woman named Vlasta Vucovic opened it in 1933 or 1934. She kept a baseball bat behind the bar. One of Al Capone’s brothers drank here. The wallpaper had horses on it. The gold star embedded in cement in front of the bar was there when Reid bought it from Vucovic in 1990. Gold Star regulars were dealt a loss in 2012 when Reid’s daughter, Susan Stursberg, the ever present face behind the bar, died of pancreatic cancer. If you don’t see Reid there now, if the vibe isn’t low-key and the drinks aren’t cheap, you’re at the wrong bar.
Simon’s Tavern in Andersonville operated as a speakeasy called the N.N. Club during Prohibition. [DNAinfo/Josh McGee]
Both bars got their start in 1934 after previous lives, and both have had only three ownership changes. During Prohibition, Swedish immigrant Simon Lundberg ran a grocery at 1510 W. Berwyn Ave. He moved it around the corner to Clark Street, carved out a basement speakeasy and in 1934, with Prohibition over, re-named it Simon’s Tavern. His son Roy took it over in 1970. Scott Martin has been running it since 1994 and entertaining rumors that the bar is haunted for as long.
The humble wood-frame building at 1354 W. Wabansia Ave. that houses The Hideout started out as just that — someone’s house dating to the late 1800s, co-owner Tim Tuten said. Around 1919 (perhaps not coincidentally, the start of Prohibition), the records for that address “went off the rails,” Tuten said, not to resurface until 1934 with a newly acquired liquor license for The Hideout Inn. Liquor likely was served in those intervening years, just not the legal kind. Regulars come now for an eclectic mix of concerts, political chats, soup potlucks and more.
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