Being one of Chicago’s oldest neighborhoods, it’s no surprise that Old Town oozes with tales of the past. Originally known as North Town, many Germans established businesses along North Avenue and, like Starbucks and McDonald’s litter the landscape today, bars and breweries did the same in the mid-1800s. While images of North Town are now faded memories, a few of the local taverns help us remember this wonderfully historic part of Chicago.
Bong-bong-bong. They say that if you can hear the glorious church bells of St. Michael’s, that means you’re in Old Town. While I sit in Twin Anchors and feverishly devour some world famous BBQ ribs and guzzle down an IPA, I often hear the bells that were installed in 1876 and tower 325 feet over us in the steeple that was completed in 1888. When Lewis Ketzel had his butcher shop here in 1873, what was his reminder? Hmm, a question to ponder with the next IPA. Twin Anchors just celebrated its 81st anniversary and has seen a number of historic events and cultural trends come and go. Remember the disco craze? Yep, so do they. Just remember, Positively No Dancing.
Once a corner saloon and a barbershop during the late 1800s, 1758 N. Sedgwick was Victor Caruso Soft Drinks. But that was the 1920s and Chicago was knee deep in Prohibition and this was a joint where the drinks were, well, not so soft. Today, Marge’s Still continues to be a neighborhood tap as it was in the 1950s. But the battle to keep the bar here was not an easy one. In 2007, the good guys finally won and the name of the bar is a testament to both its distant past and recent history. Indeed, Marge’s Still.
As I pull open the front door of 219 W. North Avenue, I can always count on a swirl of beautiful old stale air smacking me dead in the face. If a decade can kiss you, then the 1960s always like to lay a wet one on me as I cross the threshold of the Old Town Ale House. It’s a good feeling. The people here are as great as her stories. Whether its Reuben Four Toes (yes, he used to have ten), Hawkeye, Grasshopper, Lee, Coach or Duane, I can always count on a slew of old-timers and fellow regulars to teach me something new. If the Geriatric Genius is willing to talk, then it’s a great day. He often sits patiently with me as I drill him with questions about the old days gone by.
Founded in 1958, the Old Town Ale House flourished during a time when hippies roamed the Chicago landscape and made the neighborhood their unofficial HQ. Pull up a bar stool and bask in some serious Chicago art history. From the small portraits of regulars that surround you to the larger-than-life images of political figures in compromising situations, the Ale House can teach you a lesson or two in almost any aspect of Chicago. If I play my cards right, someday my mug will be up on those walls too.
Having been raised in this neighborhood, Old Town and it’s assortment of watering holes hold special places in my heart. While Twin Anchors and Marge’s Still subtly poke at you with their intriguing pasts, the Ale House stands before you in full historic glory. These are some of Chicago’s true historic gems - don’t be afraid to enjoy them with a fine adult beverage.