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© The Chicago Bar Project   Created by Sean Parnell
Chicago: The Second City
by A.J. Liebling (1952)
An excerpt from the Chapter, "So Proud to Be Jammy-jammy"

A thing about Chicago that impressed me from the hour I got there was the saloons. New York bars operate on the principle that you want a drink or you wouldn't be there. If you're civil and don't mind waiting, they will sell you one when they get around to it. Chicago bars assume that nobody likes liquor, and that to induce the customers to purchase even a minute quantity, they have to provide a show. Restaurateurs, I was to learn, approach the selling of food from the same angle. The Porterhouse, a restaurant in the Hotel Sherman, when I last looked in on it, had six cowboy violinists in fringed pants to play "Tales from the Vienna Woods" at your table in order to sell you a hamburger, and the menu listed credits for costume and scenic design. The urge to embellishment found literary outlet in the listing of things to eat, such as:

"Ah, the PORTERHOUSE! Aristocrat of steaks... most delectable of steaks. Greatest of all the steaks, for within it are encompassed the Tenderloin, the Sirloin, the meaty bone of the full loin. Small wonder that in this fabulous steak, ERNEST BYFIELD found inspiration for the name of the last... and the finest room he was to conceive!

Carved from vintage corn-fed beef, your PORTERHOUSE is broiled under a high heat that seals in the flavor-giving juices... sears the rich fat to a crispy-edged succulence. Specify to your Captain the precise degree of 'doneness' you require—and tell him, too, whether you wish to be graced with garlic's subtle savor."

One of the more modest items on the menu was "Chuck Wagon Beef Stew, Sautéd Julienne of Beef Tenderloin in Hot Sour Cream Sauce with Rice." Walking through a cocktail lounge and into another dining room in the Sherman, known as the Well of the Sea, I was handed a bill of fare proposing "Bahama Conch Chowder with Barbados Rum, said to be a favorite soup of Ernest Hemingway, believed by the natives of the Bahama Islands to promote virility and longevity" and "Scallops in Season: Called St. James Shells in England. Says Elliot Paul, 'Cleverest and most tasty of Mollusks.'" The Sherman menu writer is in the great tradition of a Chicago restaurateur named Dario Toffenetti, who opened a New York succursale, where, in season, he sells "Autumnal Pumpkin Pie in an Avalanche of Whipped Cream."

The smallest bars provide an organist or a pianist or two organists or two pianists, or a pianist and an organist back to back, both backs, if female, bare to the coccyx. The musicians work on a small dais behind the bottles. Places slightly larger furnish a singer and a comedian, as well. Their art makes conversation impossible, but on my first visit to Chicago I had no one to talk to anyway, so I found it a pleasant custom. It wasn't until I went back later and made some friends in the city that I learned to long for the sociable quiet of a New York bar, in which you can snarl at your companions without having to use a microphone. [Of late, television has been cutting into the number of good snarling spots, even here.]

The Chicago bars also employ blondes known as dice girls, who stand behind small green baize layouts and keep score on customers attempting a ten-dice game called Twenty-Six. In this game, you try to roll any number from one to six twenty-six times or better in thirteen tries, the odds against such an achievement, according to experts, being slightly less than five to one. The customary bet is a quarter but you can play higher. If you win, the house pays four to one, which gives it a seventeen-per-cent edge. This is about the same as the take of the parimutuel machines in New York State. The bar, however, pays its four to one in trade, on which there is a profit of perhaps three hundred per cent. One of my most astute Chicago friends, a native, is sure the girls can control the dice with magnets. I do not believe this for a minute, but it illustrates the working of the Chicago mind. It is inconceivable to my friend that the house should be content with the monumental advantage it already has. yet he plays the game steadily, mostly in bars around the Loop. He loves that grim rectangle, bound in its iron crown of elevated-railroad tracks, and says that during the war, when he was overseas and he thought of Chicago, it was always of the Loop in the rain, with the sound of the low-pitched, bisyllabic police whistles, like sea birds' cries.

I began my investigation of Chicago's saloons the first evening I spent in the city, and wound up by wandering out from the center of the Loop along a street called West Madison, which resembles a Bowery of a more raucous sort than the one we know. Toward the end of my run, found myself in an area where whiskey was two shots for a quarter—and the entertainment was ore copious than ever. I have never heard "Mexicali Rose" sung so well as that night on West Madison Street. I arrived back in my hotel filled with that tranquil satisfaction that follows a revel in a strange town, in which nobody will turn up next day to remind you how dull you were.

~ Have a good story relating to A.J. Liebling? Email us. ~

– created by Sean Parnell

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