As I waited to speak with Colin, a young girl had just walked through the door and inquired about a job. While she didn’t have an appointment, Colin briefly spoke with her and quietly gave me the “one second” gesture. He managed to throw in a few comical one-liners before telling her to come back at 5 p.m. for a trial run as a hostess.
This was not my first time chatting with Colin Cordwell nor witnessing a kind and spontaneous conversation he was having with a stranger. That’s how I first met him in 1999, except he was serving me beers at his father's bar, the Red Lion. After hearing him banter with customers and spout out random fact after random fact, we finally got down to chatting about the his bar and his British heritage. As a self-proclaimed Anglophile and lover of history, it was as if I had discovered my version of pub heaven. From that moment forward, I would make it a point to visit the tavern whenever I could. Plus, I could listen to Colin talk for hours.
Like most folks that grew up in the Lincoln Park area, I was sad to see the Red Lion close its doors six years ago. I would miss that dingy carpet, old plumbing, rickety timber, and smoke-stained wallpaper in my beloved neighborhood bar. The pub was a direct reflection of the area’s bohemian and middle class past and a reminder of the people I grew up with. John Cordwell acquired the 1881 Chicago wooden structure 103 years after its construction. In 1984 John purchased the building and a liquor license belonging to Dirty Dan’s Western Saloon for the whopping price of $200,000. Those were the days when this block of Lincoln Park was inhabited with classics like the Lounge Ax and Wax Trax! Records; when you could count more bookstores than bars; when you could grab a cup of coffee at Peter’s Restaurant; and when you could walk to the Fullerton L and pop into Demon Dogs before digging into your pocket for that lone CTA token to hop on either the A or B train.
Change happens but the past can live on in the present thanks to stewards like Colin Cordwell (above). To say that locals were excited when the Red Lion Pub reopened last month is an understatement because it was through this pub that we all got a little bit of our history back.
As I admired and perused the original menu from 1984, Colin joked, “The old building was still standing only because the termites were holding hands, so it wasn’t hard to see it go." It took two banks, three bids, three architects, 30 construction companies and six years to resurrect the bar. And Colin also helped open four other Chicago bars in that time. When I asked him if he ever just wanted to give up on the Red Lion, he quipped, “Oh, God, yes. Many times. And I feel like I just gave birth to a banker.”
The Red Lion Pub of 2014 is inspired by Tudor architecture and has beautiful vaulted ceilings, large windows, a striking Union Jack mural and all the modern amenities you could desire. Colin’s family heritage lives on in the War Room, a tribute to his father and grandfather and in the Africa Room, dedicated to his mother.
The beer menu - consisting mostly of British and German drafts - was also created with family history in mind. More than 1,000 books line the shelves, a mere 1/15th of Colin’s personal collection. His answer to my inquiry about how he amassed all those volumes?
“I spend a lot of time in the bathroom.”
The truth is, the guy likes to read.
His upbringing, family history, and love of books have shaped him to be a person that can jump from being a philosopher and poet one minute to emerging as a historian and psychologist bartender the next. The number of literary quotes he’ll spew out during one conversation is enough to make you scratch your head and think, “Bloody hell, does this bloke have a quote for everything?” I’m pretty sure the answer is yes.
Throughout the whole hour we chatted, I was still intrigued by the fact that Colin offered that young girl a chance at a job without hesitation. She had just walked through the door on a random Tuesday and walked out that same door with an opportunity for work. “That’s someone’s daughter. You have to treat people the way you would want them to treat your daughter. We’re all connected and everyone has a story.”
As the Stone Roses play in the background, I realize that I love the Red Lion Pub and its story because it’s all of our stories rolled into one. And it certainly is a great Chicago story. Keep Calm, Chicago, and Red Lion On.