Tucked away in the hollows of Wrightwood Neighbors is a little piece of the Gold Coast smack dab in Lincoln Park. Decked out with more sporting memorabilia than the opening credits of the TV show Coach is the nuevo-neighborhood bar known as the Burwood Tap. Perhaps the only bar in Chicago that's ever been named as a hybrid of the two streets upon which corner it sits, the Burwood Tap is a perennial favorite of Golden Tee addicts, Jäger shooters and those that can't turn down a $30 all-you-can drink, two-hour binge or a free buffet for that matter. Just try going there and not getting sloshed. That is the Chicago Bar Project challenge to you.
The Burwood Tap lies innocently enough at the leafy corner of Burling and Wrightwood (Bur-wood... get it?) in a quiet residential neighborhood, though the saloon is precariously close to the "Burritos as big as your head" joint La Bamba, which has been destroying digestive tracts on Big Ten college campuses for years. My advice: never order the chorizo burrito... trust me on this one. The locale is one block east of Halsted and just north of the R&B nexus that offers Chicago legends, Kingston Mines and B.L.U.E.S. The best way to get to "The Wood" is to walk, cab or, if you're really smart, bike it. They've got a full bike rack out front. Parking around here is nothing short of a nightmare at almost any time of day.
Housed in the base of a two-story, white-painted building, the Burwood Tap's maroon awning advertises its legacy that dates back to 1933 below somewhat less subtle green signage (read: enormous) proclaiming the Burwood as "Lincoln Park's Finest," to the right of a candy-striped awning that harkens back to the days of Prohibition, when the place operated as a soda shop (read: speakeasy). 1933 was the year "The Noble Experiment" ended and the Burwood Tap, so named even then, was one of the first 20 taverns in Chicago to obtain a license, behind Berghoff and Coq d'Or, of course. Since the beginning, Burwood Tap has been proprieted by the same family, now in its third generation of ownership.
Beyond a set of two thick wooden doors, you'll be simultaneously carded and sold a beer by a waitress that hovers around the door like a busboy over your food at bw-3. If they don't pounce on you at the door, perhaps because it's too early or because they're assaulting the group that walked in just in front of you, belly up to the long wooden bar that runs along the eastern wall. As they fetch your draft, try not to be overwhelmed by the cacophony of sporting memorabilia, beer signage, a stuffed dear head, old Life Magazine covers, metal Coca-Cola signs, and other random elements like a Richard J. Daley campaign poster, a ticker over the bar with scores from games around the league and a strap from the old Halsted Street trolley car (hang on if you're loaded) much of which is reflected by the large mirror behind the bar framed by stately wooden columns. Male patrons can find solace from the sight by the cute waitresses that prowl the front room for orders and tips. If that doesn't do it for ya, there's always SportsCenter within eyeshot somewhere. Old-fashioned light fixtures hang from a wooden ceiling and bathe the room in orange glow. Across from the bar are a smattering of thick wooden cocktail tables that are conducive for downing a plethora of pitchers ($6 on Fridays, last I heard), as is the popcorn served from an ancient machine, matches the cash register, just to the left of the bar. The front room gets very crowded as the evening progresses, so head to the back if it gets to be too much for you.
In the middle of Burwood Tap and up a couple of steps is the pool landing, which is surrounded by a thigh-high wooden railing. Here, you'll experience the odd Chicago habit of playing pool when there's a complete lack of space in which to do it. Not only have the owners crammed the pool table into a space just large enough to accommodate it, which causes hustler wannabes to pull out the "short-boy" on a multitude of shots, but also a horde of pool groupies crowd the little space that the pool table, and the small, porcelain Irish fellow in the bathtub doesn't take up. Better refuge from these challenging logistics ? even more so than the waitress stand at the bar at Southport Lanes ? is at one of two cocktail tables located at the east end of this landing.
If you have a chance, check out the large black & white photo here that depicts the regulars at Burwood Tap in its early days. One of the Burwood Taps longtime regulars, who passed on recently, was none other than Leroy Brown. Does the name sound familiar? He was in the Navy with Jim Croce, who later wrote a song called, "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown," who was the "baddest man in the whole damned town." Though referenced as having the South Side of Chicago as his stomping grounds in the song, the real Leroy Brown preferred the North Side and Burwood Tap. Of Leroy Brown's temperament, one of the bartenders that knew him well told me that we was, "a kind, charming, distinguished, nice man, and one hell of a pool player."
The athletic knickknack theme at Burwood continues throughout the bar and into the back room, where you'll find an especially impressive variety of old sporting equipment on display, nailed to the wall and posts, and hanging from the ceiling in the tradition of in the tradition of Butch McGuire's, Hangge Uppe and the Green Door Tavern. Here, you'll spot "Eat at Joe's" neon signs, a skateboarding squirrel, a tuba, a typewriter, and a mounted deer's head that sports a Northwestern University cap. As you wade through the clutter, you'll find a Golden Tee machine on your right and another long wooden bar that stretches down the latter part of the western wall. Additional seating can be found at several more wooden cocktail tables, large enough to hold a party of 4-6 inebriates, along with another Golden Tee machine. The men's bathroom can be found back here while the women's is accessible via the loathsome pool landing (which increases the traffic in this claustrophobic space even further).
The back room is often used as a staging area for $30 all-you-can-drink-fests, sometimes two at a time. Someone will ask you what charity you're supporting that night, will take your slaw and slap a wristband on you before you can say, "Didn't it used to be $20?" It's still a good deal, but be prepared to fight for a drink at the inevitably crowded bar. Thankfully, highly attentive waitresses will help you out. On one night in particular, we shelled out our $30 and were downing pitchers like there was no tomorrow. Each time the waitress came by, we went through a different stage of emotion. The first was mild surprise at the waitresses's arrival at the precise time when we were about to order another pitcher from the bar. The second time, we were thankful that she came back. The third time, we were becoming intoxicated with her beauty and charm. The fifth time, she was radiant and we all lusted after her. The sixth time, we started to become suspicious of her intentions that become increasingly mischievous as the night wore on. The seventh time, we seethed at her presence. The eighth time, we admitted defeat and slid one step lower: we headed to the Lodge.
The crowd at the Burwood Tap is a predictable cross-section of the North Side. You'll find a sea of homogeneously dressed clientele in denim and black leather jackets with a media age of 25. In addition, you'll find guys for whom the free popcorn serves as an entire meal, and entire coed softball and volleyball teams that descend from parks around the lakefront, some of which are sponsored by the bar. The main entertainment for the nightly horde consists of Golden Tee, pool (good luck), music from 80s hair bands and Fergie, downing pitchers and Irish car bombs, and picking up on the opposite sex ? it's back to the basics at Burwood. The crowd has indeed changed considering its post-Prohibition roots. The Burwood Tap does not have a kitchen but you can occasionally get frozen pizza, hot dogs and soup, and there's a free buffet from Thursday through Saturday from 8-10pm.
In addition to the common "best neighborhood bar" accolades it receives every year in at least a few contests, several employees from the Burwood Tap provided aid and comfort to those affected by the porch collapse in 2003 that resulted in 12 deaths. Bouncers and bartenders alike provided towels, ice, bandages, and even coffee and donuts the following morning for those stricken with grief after visiting the scene. Cheers to the Burwood Tap for their sensitivity and humanity. They were awarded a special commendation by the City of Chicago. Following this tragic calamity, I was told the sobering news by a friend of mine while hanging over at Mickey's Snack Bar that we had both been on that very porch, hanging with a Maine East crowd of roughly the same size, just the summer before. That was a bit of a wake-up call...
"A Rush St. bar on Wrightwood. Drunk rugby players mingling with doe-eyed singles who live around the corner."
The Official Chicago Bar Guide (1994)
The self-described "cross between your grandmother's garage and Ralph Lauren's Polo'' has now been in business for over 70 years and its popularity has actually grown rather than waned. Not bad for this den of iniquity ? the remodeling in the 1980s has definitely paid dividends. Widely regarded to be much better than the other "Tap" on Wrightwood, I would recommend the Burwood Tap when you've got your drinkin' boots on and you're ready to embark on one of those surreal, drunken adventures that last until you find yourself passed out on the shores of Lake Michigan. The pool table may present a bit of a problem, but everything else works out pretty well at the Burwood and you have to give them credit for their humanitarian efforts, like having a staff that doesn't regularly laugh at me when I walk through the door... For more information, check out the Burwood Tap website.
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Photo courtesy of Carla G. Surratt of Picturing Chicago