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."

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