Editor's Note: I often joked that if I ever stopped going out, half the bars in the city would shutter their doors. With my favorite, JT Collins, it actually happened in late 2004. I stopped going there after a gradual decline during the year, as evidenced by the change of menu, uncleanliness, dismissal of its best bartenders, and disintegration of the very service that made it such a great bar in the first place. Sure enough, JT Collins is gone. If you miss it as much as I do (prior to its decline, of course), head north on Lincoln to Gannon's Pub, where you'll find what could be considered "JT Collins North," as it is owned and operated by the brother and sister combo Sean & Sheila, who were largely responsible for the warmth and success of their former employer. The Four Moon Tavern a little further west on Roscoe and Waterhouse kitty corner offer new homes for lost JT regulars. The space formerly known as JTs has been completely transformed into an over-priced wine and pizza bar called, "Frasca."
League of Gentlemen
Though you might not realize it, JT Collins has quietly joined a league of profoundly excellent neighborhood bars that also includes Redmond's, O'Donovan's, Jake's Pub, and nearby Village Tap. JT's, as the locals know it as, is one of North Side's best kept secrets primarily because the pub doesn't look like much from the outside and the bar's only promotion is through word of mouth, passed along by young and old patrons alike in the evolving neighborhood that surrounds it. Since it opened in 1995, JT Collins has served Roscoe Village with a relaxed environment, surprisingly good food and some of the best bartenders in the city.
Never Disrespect Your Cart
Getting to JT's shouldn't be a problem. Street parking isn't difficult to find, cabs are plentiful and the tavern is located about 100 yards from the Paulina Brown Line El stop. The pub can be found across the street from Just Tires and kitty corner from Waterhouse (formerly Cabo Bar & Grill and the defunct shell of Kerouac Jack's). JT's is so accessible that I rode to JT Collins one night in a Whole Foods shopping cart that was discarded in front of the Lincoln and School Blockbuster Video (which I shall continue to resent until they start carrying The Amityville Horror). I was pushed by a friend of mine and this provided much amusement to the patrons of Tavern 33 as we passed by. A word of warning: once we arrived at JT's, we parked the cart just outside the front door but didn't have a way to secure the grocery conveyance – it was gone when we left the bar. This just proves once and for all that you should never leave home without your Cart Club, and never disrespect your cart itself.
The tinted floor-to-ceiling windows of JT's are somewhat at odds with the ornate white building that surrounds it that seems in need of a good sandblasting (though it looks great at night with the floodlights). The only advertisement for this humble establishment is a solitary "JT Collins" sign made from posterboard and with a giant olive painted on it. Regardless of what it looks like, JT's has a friendly, inviting feel to it. Step inside and you'll find an elegant, cherry wood bar that runs along the south wall. Here you'll find 16 beers on tap, of which many unique microbrews are featured on a rotating basis especially on "Micro Brew Tuesdays." JT Collins even offers a hand-pulled ale at the west end of the bar. Across from the bar are a series of wooden cocktail tables and more can be found up front at the windows overlooking Paulina and Lincoln. JT's also has a creative selection of martinis including the "Vesper" (007 Dry Martini), the "No Hangover," a chocolate martini, the "PB&J Martini," and the "Tangerini."
"About the size of a Starbuck's, this neighborhood spot is so easygoing if you could turn the vibe into a pill you'd have the biggest Quaalude this side of your mother's bell-bottoms."
– Shecky's Bar, Club & Lounge Guide 2002
As it turns out, the warm atmosphere at JT's was exactly the original intention. JT's used to be a coffeehouse-turned-bar called the Torchlight Cafe, which didn't really have much of a personality at all. When owner Tom Magee opened JT's, his goal was to create a comfortable environment that would fit in with the neighborhood vibe that was transforming from a rough, gang-ridden area to a settling point for post-Lincoln Park/East Lakeview denizens. Tom's efforts have largely proven successful, due almost entirely to the bartenders he's hired. They're convivial and make it easy for you to order food & drink on a tab – just tell 'em what table you're sitting at, even if you're outside in the sidewalk café during the warmer months, and you won't even need to leave a credit card with them (except on the weekends). One of these bartenders, Paulie, once even bought me a round over at the nefarious Tai's Till Four located only a few blocks away (this was a good thing for me as it turned out that I did not have enough money to pay). If you're sitting at the bar at JT Collins, the bartenders make sure your glass stays full, are always up for a chat, and might even buy you a drink if you're there long enough. Serious fans of rock and alternative will also appreciate the quality of music played by the bartenders and the occasional small music act performing on the tiny stage. By comparison, the waitresses leave something to be desired when present. JT's is also quite happy to sponsor local softball teams although, as your loyalty grows, the amount they offer seems to be reduced. [Editor's note: you can still find Paulie (pictured to the left) at the Edgewater, Gannon's Pub and possibly at Tai's til 4 (as a patron).]
Unisex Yes, Darts No
In addition to bartenders that give the profession a good name, JT's features several televisions, two Golden Tee machines (one at the fore and aft), panoramic windows that open out in the summertime, and a requisite tin ceiling. Two unisex one-seater bathrooms are located in the back, with exposed brick walls and ornate mirrors. One of these bathrooms even has a small stool in it and a machine that dispenses ob (tampons for the ladies), Tylenol, Maalox, Life Styles Condoms, and the coup de gras: Moon Light Glow-in-the-Dark Condoms. What else could you want from the john? An electronic dartboard stands next to one of the rear Golden Tees in an interesting little back corner of the bar that also features a white drop ceiling and a wall papered with a design inspired by Piet Mondrian. I wouldn't suggest a round of darts as you'll not only have to fend of the busboys from playing but also it's difficult enough to get the darts to stick unless you hurl them at the board utilizing a full pitcher's motion. Elsewhere at JT Collins, an "Expose Yourself to Ireland" poster of a man flashing a herd of sheep hangs next to the bar and next to a framed painting of a giraffe's head, which leaves a lasting impression (and an odd one at that). Another interesting poster is the one above the black banquette in the front window that depicts a monkey drinking a bottle of Anisetta Evangelisti. Strangely, this poster can also be found at Kincade's and Lucky Strike—I wish I knew why... The soft glow from the room's track lighting illuminates a variety of beer steins and other kickshaws above the bar, which are replaced by a row of bright red poinsettias around Christmas.
The Most Wonderful Time of the Year
Speaking of Christmas, JT's throws an annual Christmas party where they offer free food, $2 beers and $3 shots. In 2002, they had chili relleños, rice, beans, some chicken thing that was quite good (the chef's specialty), along with "Joey the Gigolo," a tuxedoed gentlemen who sang Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin songs interspersed with attempted Rodney Dangerfield impressions. Unfortunately, the festive proceedings were somewhat dampened due to the family of yahoos that came in with their kids who had fun by running around the bar and keeping the front door open freezing everyone in the process. Who brings their kids to a bar, especially at night? Apparently, late 30's couples in Roscoe Village do. Overall, the party was great (after the family left) and is a great example of how generous the owners and staff at JT Collins can be.
The southwestern theme at Christmas is somewhat of a departure from the somewhat eclectic menu at JT's rivals that of other Roscoe Village competitors like Kitsch'n on Roscoe, Four Moon Tavern, Riverview Tavern, Fizz, and Belly's. Chef Jody Denton, formerly of The Eccentric (now Wildfire at 159 W. Erie St., Chicago) originally designed the menu personally. While the selection includes a good variety of sandwiches, a heaping plate of nachos that I have ordered more times than I can count, Chicago flatbread pizza, ribs and medallions of beef, JT's recently got rid of such classics as the andouille sausage sandwich, JT's grilled cheese and goat cheese marinara. They still serve grilled cheese but put too much basil in it. More importantly, however, JTs has stuck with their most important specialty: the gorgonzola-filled burger. Jimmy Buffet fans might appreciate that this mincemeat delicacy as the closest I've been to a Cheeseburger in Paradise for a while. However, as with any cheese-stuffed burger, one must be careful not to bite into it too fast. A friend of mine told me that he made this mistake and grease splattered his shirt, rendering it unwearable. While the food is quite reasonably priced, if you need some cash, stop by the ATM at the convenience store next door.
Ghost in the Machine
On a curious note, it appears that JT Collins has some difficulty maintaining their electronic equipment. One of the Golden Tee machines seized up during a particularly competitive match, causing the bartender to unplug the machine so that it could rest. A game of darts went awry from the start as coins for three players was deposited only to have a one player game begin. And, during a recent bought of March Madness, a TV in prime viewing position had malfunctioned leaving those at the east side of the bar up shit's creek. Perhaps there is a supernatural element at play... Red Lion and Ole St. Andrew's, eat your hearts out!
LV-2 Only, Please
On another night, a friend and I attempted to carry the "Do Not Enter" sign that sits at the southeast corner of Roscoe and Lincoln like a festering eyesore. When we realized the sign was too heavy to move between the two of us, we satisfied our mischievous desires by taking the smaller yellow "Cubs Night Games Resident Parking Only" sign and setting it atop a Chevy Blazer. The sign was later seen in the courtyard of a nearby apartment complex, and was subsequently returned to its home at Marshfield and Roscoe.
"One of the city's classic neighborhood bars"
– A. LaBan, New City Chicago
All in all, JT Collins is perfect for a laid-back weekend afternoon watching the game, after a ride in a shopping cart, for getting some grub before you head out for the night, or for stopping by for a beer after work while picking up a Reader and pondering how long Cabo across the street will remain in business (current bets have the bar closing before Summer 2004. Not bad for a bar without a satisfying explanation for how it was named ("JT Collins" was formed from a combination of first and last names of people known to the owner). Next time you're in Roscoe Village, stop by and Paulie, Sean and Sheila will take care of you. Until then, how 'bout another Goldschläger, Chief? [read on below for more...]
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Ushering in the Third Decade
The evening started out innocuously enough. My friend Bob was in town for our combined 30th birthday party the next day at the Billy Goat Tavern, and we were going to start off at JT Collins, and maybe move on to Rock-A-Tiki or somewhere else in the Ukrainian Village. Well, that didn't happen as the Road to Hell is indeed paved with good intentions. It turns out that Bob had flown in from New York City, not on the commercial airline on which he had a ticket for, but on his company's private jet after bumping into the vice president who was also headed to Chicago. Three hours later, he showed up at my place somewhat loaded, thanks to the two bottles of wine he consumed while playing poker. We then pulled up a stool at JT's and he excitedly told me the story about his trip and about breaking up with his girlfriend. He was equally as excited about the latter as he was the former. Things hadn't been going well between them for over a year ? Exhibit A: she bought him a DVD player last Christmas and he wasn't going to buy her anything; upon receipt of his gift, he ran out and bought her a small teddy bear). Anyway, at some point after my second Sierra Nevada pale ale came the first shot. Generally speaking, I don't like shots and try to avoid them like the plague. However, I do like Goldschläger and feel that it's infinitely better than its black sheep counterpart, J?germeister. After the shot, a few more beers and a round of Golden Tee, we were joined by my girlfriend, my friend Jerry and his girlfriend. As each one joined our party, I had a shot. Jerry bought me two. After that, several more Sierra Nevadas (not a weak beer), and a JT's grilled cheese, yours truly was in fine spirits?literally. When my friend Dave walked in and ordered yet another Goldschläger shot for me, he was asked by the bartender if he was with us. After responding in the affirmative, the bartender replied, "Is that guy still going?!" Indeed I was. Fortunately, my girlfriend left before I embarrassed myself by hurling a mustard bottle at Jerry (for leaving before I did) and inadvertently cock-blocking my two single friends from going out late-night with two girls they had met. They were both staying at my place so I declared loudly, as if to the whole bar, that I was GOING HOME and not drinking any more. Apparently, when we got to my place I demanded that they let me hang their coats and then promptly passed out in my bed. I actually had a very pleasant night's sleep, which was only disturbed around 6:00am by the sudden and violent urge to vomit. I desperately tried to make it to the bathroom but came about ten feet short. There's nothing like watching the sun come up through your windows while you're cleaning up your Technicolor yawn, still shit-canned... What a way to usher in my third decade.