Small Business

Neighborhood Taverns Disappear from Chicago

Judy Keen, USA Today
Bar Shelf

What used to be Johnnie's Lounge is empty now, though a fading Hamm's Beer sign still hangs over its locked door. Paulie's Place is vacant. So is the spot once occupied by Max Tavern. The building that housed Lawry's Tavern starting in 1937 is now home to a more upscale bar.

Neighborhood taverns, which for generations were cornerstones of Chicago's ethnic communities, are being squeezed out by the economy, gentrification, changing tastes and city regulations that make it more difficult to operate in residential areas.

"Hopefully they won't disappear," says Scott Martin, owner of Simon's Tavern, which has served patrons in Andersonville, once a Swedish enclave, since 1934. It's a cliché, says Martin, 51, but "it's great to go someplace where everybody knows your name."

It's still possible to find old-school taverns that cater to neighborhoods and serve inexpensive beverages, says Sean Parnell, who wrote the 2010 book Historic Bars of Chicago and runs the Chicago Bar Project,, which chronicles the city's bar scene and tracks the demise of such spots.

"There aren't many of them around anymore," he says. "You really can't get a tavern license in areas that have regentrified … and the costs for licensing and insurance have really gone up."

Bob Smerch closed Sterch's — which combined his name with that of a partner named Stern — a couple of years ago with great reluctance after 38 years in business. "It was a neighborhood joint where everybody knew everybody," says Smerch, 70. "It's illegal to run tabs in Chicago, but I've heard that they ran tabs there to a fault."

"I miss it horribly," he says. "People want bars now that focus on 20- or 30-year-olds and are so different from the ones that were."

A place to go

In the days before television, people — mostly men — sought diversions in neighborhood taverns, says Michael Ebner, history professor emeritus at Lake Forest College in Lake Forest, Ill., a Chicago suburb. "There was a degree of camaraderie there and a sense of neighborliness as well," he says. "The social bonds that evolved … were quite enduring."

Home-cooked meals often were available at taverns, which became hubs of political activity and, eventually, places to watch sports events on TV. "The tradition lives on, but in sharply diminished proportion," Ebner says.

Some cities celebrate old-fashioned taverns. The Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation organizes tours of local drinking spots, says Arthur Ziegler, the foundation's president. About 50 people participated in the December outing of the Society of Tavern Seekers. Many taverns are unknown even to Pittsburgh residents and retain historical architecture and signage. "It's all very appealing," he says.

In Buffalo, Marty Biniasz and Eddy Dobosiewicz founded ForgottenBuffalo, which leads tours of local sites, including pubs. "The neighborhood tavern became an oasis" for men who worked in steel mills and other factories, Biniasz says. A resurgence in interest is being driven by young people who "are looking for authenticity and are rediscovering there's a real heart and soul in these places," he says.

Licenses hard to come by

In 1990, about 3,300 Chicago establishments had tavern licenses allowing them to serve alcoholic beverages; places that also offer live entertainment, charge admission or serve food as a primary source of business require different or additional licenses.

The number diminished as city leaders sought closure of bars that prompted police calls or complaints from neighbors, and since 2009, the number of tavern licenses has held steady at about 1,200.

There are about 5,000 businesses in the city that sell alcohol, including package goods stores, taverns, clubs and restaurants.

Opening or buying a tavern in Chicago can be complicated, says Mike Costanzo, a real estate broker with Jameson Commercial. Aldermen can seek liquor license moratoriums in areas as small as two blocks, and buyers are required to purchase the corporate entity that owns an existing tavern and license, he says.

"Getting a new tavern license issued in a residential neighborhood is brutal," Costanzo says. "It's virtually impossible."

Ebner hopes Chicago's remaining taverns can survive. If people stay home instead of patronizing neighborhood pubs, he says, "it really fosters a sense of personal isolation."

Martin says the survival of the city's sense of community is at stake. When he bought Simon's Tavern 17 years ago, he found a shoebox containing $80,000 in IOUs. When a longtime patron died, he and his other customers gave the man, who had no family, a funeral.

When he was growing up in the neighborhood, Martin says, there were 15 bars on the street where Simon's Tavern is located. "They're all gone," he says.