Thursday, March 24, 2011

Part 18: Windy City Publicans

Part 18: Windy City Publicans

“He was a wise man who invented beer.” – Plato

Luckily we got seats at the bar, which is extremely rare on a Saturday night. Typically at most crowded Chicago pubs I have to fight my way through two to three layers of inebriated, twentysomething Big Ten grads to reach the bar in order call out my order to a surly, burly bartender. Of course, with two young kids at home it's quite rare for us to find ourselves at a pub—much less out past 9:00 PM—in the first place. Tonight, however, my wife and I could belly up to the bar like regulars and imbibe a few exotic beers.

After perusing the extensive list of ales, lagers, stouts, pale ales, IPAs, and porters at Hop Leaf, a wildly popular Andersonville pub that boasts Chicago's best beer menu, I settle on a Stone IPA, brewed in Escondido, California. The folks at rate it an A, and after my first heavenly sip I concur: Stone IPA is heaven in a pint glass.

My next selection is a Fat Tire Amber Ale from New Belgium Brewery in Fort Collins, Colorado. Did I mention Fat Tire is my favorite beer? As a grad student at Colorado State University in "Fort Fun" during the mid-1990s, I fell in love with the amber, malty goodness made with Rocky Mountain waters, Willamette hops and Belgian inspiration. Until just a few short years ago I had to bootleg Fat Tire on road trips from Colorado to Chicago to enjoy it in the Middle West. While I secretly enjoyed the Smokey and The Bandit adventure, albeit without the vintage '70s era Trans Am, I hated to ration my limited Fat Tire stash in between road trips. Now I can purchase it at the local grocery store, thank God and Sam Houston.

The first sip was heavenly, as always. The frothy, hoppy aroma took me back to my mid-20s, a carefree time when the majority of my life still lay before me. The second sip was just as good...and at that sublime moment I gazed at my beautiful wife, considered my good fortune in life, and I felt complete and utter contentment.

Good beer can do that to you—make you feel like a master of the freakin' universe. Heaven in a pint glass, indeed!

“Another round, please, barman.”

“” – Homer Simpson

When juxtaposed with many of my Chicago brethren, I am not a serious pintman. While I can certainly imbibe my fair share of ales, porters, IPAs, stouts and lagers, I am a lightweight drinker compared to my fellow Midwesterners. I know a few serious Chicago pintmen with hollow legs who can drink half a dozen pints or more without effect. Of course, in this frigid climate it's unsurprising that folks like to kick back a few as beer, wine, and myriad spirits help to palliate sour moods during the long, cold Midwestern winters. Insobriety is rather popular during Chicago winters.

As a result, few places are as familiar to native Chicagoans as the neighborhood tavern. Indeed, the local public house, or pub, is a fixture in almost every Windy City neighborhood. Natives will no doubt have strong opinions regarding which local pubs are the best and most authentic, so I will leave it to the resident experts to cross swords over which pub is Chicagoland's best. Instead, I will highlight a few of my favorites regardless of their authenticity or Chicagoness. (To be fair, as a Texas native I'm not qualified to determine a pub's Chicagoness.)

As the father of two young kids and a resident of Evanston, a suburb immediately north of the city, my current tastes are rather narrow, consisting almost exclusively of pubs within two miles of my condo, i.e. stumbling distance. (For the past several years, Evanston’s Firehouse Grill and Tommy Nevin’s are—without question—the pubs of choice for this 40-year-old Texpat.)

My favorite Chicago pubs exist in the past. Okay, so technically these joints are all still around, but they are not the same pubs I frequented in my mid- to late-20s and early-30s. Or, more accurately, I'm now 40 and the clientele at these establishments are still in their 20s—and my tastes have decidedly changed. So, as I mentioned, my favorite Windy City watering holes are from my mid-20s when I first moved to Lincoln Park, circa 1997, and they include—in order—Old Town Ale House, Ravens, and Carol's Pub.

“Bright Lights, Big City/Gone to My Baby's Head” -- Jimmy Reed

As a newcomer to Chicago in my mid-20s, I took the obvious path (i.e. the path more traveled by) and moved to Lincoln Park (LP) as so many unoriginal post-college yuppies had done before me. While lacking in originality, at least I had the wisdom and good fortune, not to mention the luck of geography (thank God and Sam Houston), to avoid attending Big Ten and SEC schools.

In 1997 I moved into a grungy, loud first-floor apartment adjacent to the ridiculously noisy L tracks on Sheffield immediately north of Wrightwood in the heart of LP with my friend Charlie, a fellow SMU grad who grew up in southern Illinois. Having moved to Chicago a year before me—departing Boulder and it's many strange and decadent delights for the bright lights of the big city—Charlie spent many productive nights reconnoitering the pubs throughout Chicagoland one pint at a time. It was tough work but someone had to do it.

When I arrived, Charlie had identified three classic dives that quickly became our neighborhood public houses. Our favorite, Old Town Ale House at the corner of North Ave and Wells St, was not really in our neighborhood per se, but it was close enough from which to stumble home that we counted it as such anyway. Besides the cheap beer—Old Style pints for two bucks—we immediately fell in love with its Theater of Magic pinball machine, which sits among the bar's odd library consisting of dog-eared science fiction and romance pulp resting comfortably on the shelves alongside abstruse volumes of literary criticism. Plus, the pub was frequented by a motley group of locals with such wide-ranging variance in age and socioeconomic background as to make any demographer smile. Absent were hoards of LP Trixies driving BMWs and listening to Coldplay (or whoever was popular on pop radio back in 1997). Adding to its unique character, the Old Town Ale House's walls are cluttered with crude portraits of local patrons past and present, from the lengthy roster of Windy City intelligentsia such as Mike Royko, Nelson Algren and Roger Ebert to famed Second City cast members Bill Murray, John Belushi, and Chris Farley, along with several locals depicted in varying degrees of undress.

Most nights at the Old Town Ale House—after the locals have lined up along the long, gnarled wooden bar, the juke box is humming with Motown classics, and the pinball machine is pinging and jerking—one may experience that familiar, intangible feeling of collective goodwill and friendly conversation that the Irish call "craic." Craic is impossible to measure yet unmistakable to anyone who has experienced it. Chicago pubs are overflowing with good craic, and Old Town Ale House is among the most saturated and authentic.

Our second favorite pub was a basement bar on Clark Street, south of Fullerton, near the former Tower Records store in the heart of LP. One summer Friday afternoon Charlie and I ditched work early and walked from downtown north to LP and found our way to Ravens. The juke box was playing Neil Young' haunting "Harvest Moon" and Fred, the perpetually inebriated bartender, was cooking up a crawfish boil replete with corn on the cob and free-flowing kegs of Pabst Blue Ribbon (PBR). Craic was definitely free flowing at Ravens that afternoon.

Several pitchers of PBR later, Charlie and I achieved that rare, blissful drunken equilibrium that is difficult to master and nearly impossible to sustain. Ravens had some rare quality that allowed us to imbibe beer after beer without effect, and on its outdoor patio we could enjoy the cool summer breeze as we watched Trixies, meatheads, drunks, gang-bangers, hipsters, yuppies, hippies, goths, slicksters, squares, north-siders, south-siders, west-siders, and the ubiquitous—and obvious—pub-crawling suburbanites meander by on their way to the myriad pubs and taverns that catered to each of their unique proclivities and tastes. In short, the patio at Ravens was a veritable people-watching bonanza.

The drunken bartender, an African American man in his mid-40s whose name I remember as Fred (though I can’t confirm that due to my own excessive consumption of PBR), always rode his green cruiser bike to Ravens. On several occasions I distinctly remember Fred precariously balancing a case of beer or box of food on the handlebars as he awkwardly maneuvered the bike in between speeding taxis and annoyed pedestrians along Clark Street sidewalks.

A few miles north, along Clark Street, I discovered my third favorite Chicago bar: Carol's Pub. It would likely have been my favorite pub but for the location, which was rather far from my LP apartment.

My first visit to Carol’s, in Uptown (on Clark north or Wilson), was a bit like coming home to Texas. Carol’s was a pub worth visiting with great regularity.

Charlie and I took the northbound Red Line to Uptown, which compared to LP is not a trendy, hip part of town. Parked in front of the entrance were half a dozen Harley Davidsons. The burly bouncer donning a blonde flat top and fat cigar checking IDs was clearly the owner of one of these loud, two-wheel monstrosities judging by the all-leather biker uniform.

Once inside, I was serenaded by a fabulous five-piece, all-female band playing Kris Kristofferson covers. "For the Good Times" was followed by "Sunday Morning Coming Down" and a groovy, rockabilly version of "Me and Bobby McGee." The long bar near the entrance was staffed by salty, hardened 50-something female bartenders who looked old for their age due to hard living and too much time spent at Carol's—and who reluctantly served up cheap beer (Budweiser, a.k.a. Liquid America) and Fritos to yuppies like Charlie and me who clearly looked like fish out of water at Chicago's last remaining honky-tonk.

When I asked the bartender what type of music they played there most nights, she explained, without a hint of irony, "we have both and western."Over the next few hours, Charlie and I enjoyed good music, cheap beer and good craic.

Carol's was a surprisingly cool spot far from the bright lights and hip bars of LP or Old Town. Indeed, Carol's turned out to be a unique pub for displaced, homesick Texans and southerners looking for authentic sounds from Dixie.

Carol's still has resonance, though I haven't been back in three or four years. Trixies and yuppies eventually discovered Carol's sometime during the last decade and decided it was cool to slum it at the local honky tonk before hitting the Viagra Triangle (the Rush Division bars nestled among Gold Coast mansions). Nevertheless, any Chicago pub with a jukebox dedicated entirely to country music, heavy with tracks by Willie, Waylon, Jerry Jeff, and Kristofferson is and will always be a favorite of Texpats like me.

"For the Good Times" -- Kris Kristofferson

I don't frequent these classic pubs much now that I'm a 40 year-old father of two. But every so often—when my old friend Charlie is back in Chi-town, or on a special occasion (like my 40th birthday)—I stop by the Old Town Ale House or Carol's Pub and I am reminded of that unique, hazy period in my mid-20s when I first moved to the City of Big Shoulders and first experienced the craic at the local public houses.

I can still hear the Kristofferson cover band in my head as I kick back in my Evanston condo and pop open another bottle of Fat Tire...

"For the good times."

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Part 17: Sorry April, But February is Actually the Cruelest Month

Part 17: Sorry April, But February is Actually the Cruelest Month...At Least in Chicago

Mid-February, 2011

Just two weeks after 26 inches of snow accumulated along the streets and sidewalks of wintry Chicago—jamming roadways and stranding nearly 1,500 cars along Lake Shore Drive—the sun shone, the mercury rose, the snow melted and the weather Gods smiled on the Windy City. For a few glorious, warm days we experienced spring in the middle of February.

When temps exceeded 60 degrees my fellow Chicagoans discarded their bulky, down-filled coats; heavy, salt-covered snow boots; Burberry cashmere scarves; fleece-lined gloves; and all the other accoutrements of winter and stripped down to shirtsleeves and jeans. A few brave souls even donned shorts and t-shirts and went for a jog along the winding lakefront path that runs alongside Lake Shore Drive, the highway that just a few days before was littered with abandoned cars. No doubt a bikini (or two) was seen somewhere along the beaches of Lake Michigan as my overly optimistic fellow Chicagoans worked hard to enjoy the brief, rare moment of warmth during an otherwise brutal winter stretch. Let's face it: after subzero temperatures, 65 degrees feels a lot like summer.

Chicago Summer

Indeed, my friend Erin actually calls this strange warming phenomenon, which seems to happen at least once each February, "Chicago Summer" (in Winter). I call it a painful, cruel reminder that winter in the City of Big Shoulders is far from over. Even though Punxsutawney Phil didn't see his shadow this year, revealing that spring will come early, I'm a cynic: it's a long, long time until spring hits Chicago. P-Phil (i.e. his hip hop name) is a notorious liar and a fraud. Never trust anyone with a hairy backside and no opposable thumbs.

Don't get me wrong: I like the warmth, however brief. Indeed, I crave it! My car doors stopped freezing shut overnight, the sidewalks are finally free of snow and ice, and I don't have to get dressed twice just to leave home: once to put on pants, shirt and shoes, etc. and then a second time to add the ridiculously complicated and voluminous outerwear for below-zero weather accompanied by ice and snow.

This winter we've had some pretty lousy weather, necessitating lots of winter gear. Hell, we even had thundersnow during the Blizzard of 2011. (By the way, Thundersnow is my recommendation for a minor league hockey team in search of a mascot.) In a word, this winter has been dreary.

Each February the weather Gods give us a glimpse of summer just to remind us that the payoff for a brutal, frigid winter is a glorious, warm summer replete with ample time spent at Wrigley Field and along Lake Michigan's many Trixie-filled beaches. Without the cruel, annual reminder each winter that temps do indeed rise above freezing—eventually—I'm quite certain the population of Chicago would be half of it's current size, and possibly less. Obviously those born and raised in Chicago and the surrounding middle west don't know anything different, but frankly I'm surprised anyone, including—if not especially—myself, would actually choose to move to this climate. But we do for myriad reasons. I suppose for most Midwesterners living in Chicago is still better than staying in Lincoln or Columbus or Iowa City—college towns with equally lousy weather—after college. At least the job opportunities in Chicago are more numerous and don't necessarily consist of delivering pizzas, pouring draft beers or stirring up crystal meth in the bathtub.

Just to rub it in the fine folks at Leo Burnett and Draft FCB—and other Chicago advertising behemoths—work hard to remind us just how cold it is here by illustrating how warm it is down South. The advertisements adorning the walls of the Union Pacific Metra Station (i.e. Ogilvie Station) in the Loop each winter are dominated by colorful images of Mexico, the Bahamas, Costa Rica, and myriad warm-weather destinations. Images of sun-tanned couples holding hands while lounging along the beaches of the Riviera Maya (i.e. ads that are strangely reminiscent of recent commercials for Cialis—I guess the mercury isn't the only thing rising) are quite amusing when juxtaposed by the hundreds of commuters passing by each morning in goose down coats, earmuffs, snow boots and Gore-Tex everything.

Head West Young Man...and Head South Old (Midwestern) Man!

Tribes tend to move in packs and Chicagoans are no different: they have decided to congregate in Florida each winter. At this time of year, older, affluent Chicagoans are more likely to be found in Naples, Marco Island, Longboat Key, Bonita Bay, Sanibel Island, and many other tony communities along Florida's gulf coast than in Chicago’s North Shore or Gold Coast. For some reason, Chicagoans seem to prefer gulf waters and sunsets while New Yorkers and New Englanders tend to assemble along Florida's Atlantic coast. As a result, these Gulf Coast communities have created a miniature, warm-weather version of Chicago replete with Chicago-style hot dogs and pizza coupled with thick Midwestern accents and cheesy Chicago Bears golf shirts. They—and, more importantly their Yankee credit cards—are welcomed with open arms down south.

Unlike my Midwestern neighbors, I have no desire to visit Florida each winter—or really any time, for that matter. As a Texan, trips to Florida are a relatively foreign concept other than the obligatory once-a-childhood family sojourn to Disney. Did I mention my feelings about Florida—that gator-infested, humid, theme-park riddled swamp? A brief rant: the typical Floridian was born during the Hoover administration and the majority of the population regards Dick Clark as a contemporary, if not a youngster. And beach-goers in Naples and Marco Island are just as likely to bring colostomy bags as they are sunscreen. In a word, Florida sucks. Okay, so maybe I'm a bit harsh on the sunshine state and the octogenarians who choose to live there.

Nevertheless, I will admit that after enduring ten Chicago winters I finally understand the desire to visit a warm climate to break up the cold, grey monotony of a long Chicago winter. Fellow Chicagoans, you may keep Florida and I'll take the American Southwest. Give me the big sky grandeur and arid beauty of New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, and California versus the humid, bland culture of South Florida. Of course, I'll admit I'm biased as a result of my Texas upbringing.

Rather than fly south during winter, my fellow Texans annually make their way north to escape the brutal summer heat in July and August. However, more often than not—unlike Chicagoans in Florida—we Texans are utterly unwanted and disdained in the Rocky Mountain West. Texans are typically regarded as interlopers with annoying George W. Bush-like accents wearing cowboy boots and hats, spending lavishly, and overrunning ski resorts along Interstate 70. Rocky Mountain retailers, tourism boards, and hoteliers love Texas money but most locals despise Texans. More specifically, they hate Texas wealth, attitudes, accents, politics, influence, and especially their boasting and self-confidence (a.k.a arrogance). Moreover, we are overly loud and aggressively friendly, which annoys the introverted, isolationist mountain folk in the Rockies. And in general, we Texans ski poorly, which likely is our most infuriating trait to most locals.

A Few Days On...Some Final Thoughts

Now...several weeks later, following the brief, cruel warm respite from winter's bone-chilling cold, the temperature is firmly back down in the low 20s and we have returned to normalcy. Just yesterday several ice blocks fell hundreds of feet from the Tower Formerly Known As Sears (i.e. Willis Tower, a.k.a. The Big Willie) and crushed a Chevy's rear window, and I am strangely comforted by the fact that the cold, blistering Chicago winter weather that we Chicagoans know and love to hate—indeed, upon which we depend for our very sanity—never really left only took a brief winter's nap.