No other bar in Chicago can match the storied past, unique décor or atmosphere of the John Barleycorn Memorial Pub. "Barleycorn's," as it is known to locals is incredibly conducive for conversation and libations, offers up a tasty selection of pub grub, and has one of the best beer gardens in the city. If that's not enough for you, perhaps you will enjoy the model ships, pub grub and weekend meat market. Oh, and did I mention that Barleycorn's was also a speakeasy during Prohibition with a Chinese laundry as a front and John Dillinger's favorite local pub?...
They took a plough and plough'd him down,
Put clods upon his head,
And they hae sworn a solemn oath
John Barleycorn was dead. History
The building now occupied by John Barleycorn's has stood in Lincoln Park since 1890 and has mostly served as a saloon, beginning with a pub opened by an Irish immigrant moonlighting as a Chicago police officer. During Prohibition, the pub was boarded up on the exterior to appear vacant to the authorities, while being a full-blown speakeasy on the inside, similar to Old Town Triangle's Twin Anchors. What is now the back room at John Barleycorn's was used to front a Chinese laundry, where bootleggers would roll in laundry carts loaded with booze under stacks of dirty clothes. The liquor was transported to the basement where it was stored and drinks were served by bringing bottles up via a small elevator. Patrons also entered through the laundry, as the front of the building was inaccessible. Later, during the Depression, John Dillinger is said to have frequented the place, while often buying the house a round with his nefarious gains after robbing banks. Dillinger was later gunned down in the alley next to the Biograph Theater, just a few blocks north.
But the cheerful Spring came kindly on,
And show'rs began to fall;
John Barleycorn got up again,
And sore surpris'd them all.
Not much is known of the bar's history following Dillinger's day, but we do know that it was purchased in 1965 by a Dutch nautical aficionado with a penchant for handmade model ships and antiques. The establishment came to be known as the John Barleycorn Memorial Pub. It's a pub more in attitude than actuality a great barn of a room decorated with some Victorian outrages and anything else that happened to appeal to owner Eric J. Van Gelder, gentleman of wit and warmth. Though he says that John Barleycorn is, 'dedicated to early 19th Century England where drunkenness was so common as to go virtually unnoticed,' he runs his pub essentially as a place to congregate; the well-stocked bar is subservient to conversation," writes Jory Graham in her book, Chicago, an Extraordinary Guide (1967). Van Gelder opened John Barleycorn's after running a place called "Upstairs at the Dram Shop" in Old Town.
The sultry suns of Summer came,
And he grew thick and strong,
His head weel arm'd wi' pointed spears,
That no one should him wrong.
The character of John Barleycorn first appeared in a ballad by Robert Burns, written in the 18th Century. John Barleycorn was also the subject of a story written by Jack London and Robert Burns' ballad was later covered by Steve Winwood and Traffic on the album, "John Barleycorn Must Die." According to the John Barleycorn Memorial Pub website, John Barleycorn's was named after a term for the, "personification of barley as used in malt liquor, or any intoxicating liquor," as found in the Random House Dictionary.
The sober Autumn enter'd mild,
When he grew wan and pale;
His bending joints and drooping head
Show'd he began to fail.
Today, the John Barleycorn Memorial Pub is owned by Sam Sanchez, and exists much as it began in the 1960s. With its limestone foundation, John Barleycorn's anchors what is now an incredibly popular bar district; the Halligan Bar is located kitty-corner from the pub, and literally a dozen bars lie within a few blocks. Conversely, Children's Memorial Hospital is located one block north of John Barleycorn's on Lincoln Avenue, where parking is available to patrons.
His colour sicken'd more and more,
He faded into age;
And then his enemies began
To show their deadly rage.
To find John Barleycorn's, head to the corner of Lincoln and Belden Avenues. There you will see a red-brick building with a tasteful, green and gold-painted wooden facade with cement evergreen planters on the sidewalk. A humble green and white sign, topped with a weather vane and from which a potted plant hangs, depicts an interpretation of John Barleycorn himself, which has become the pub's logo. However, I noticed that on the sign, JB's hat is incompletely drawn, giving the impression of John Barleycorn having horns. Considering the intentions of many of the patrons found inside at night, one might construe this as a sign of what to expect...
They've taen a weapon, long and sharp,
And cut him by the knee;
Then ty'd him fast upon a cart,
Like a rogue for forgerie.
To get in, step up to the signature gold-plated doors embossed with nautical scenes, and have your ID ready as they almost always card. You'll have plenty of time to do this on weekend nights, as there is usually a line of at least ten people after 10:00pm. Don't worry about having your money out, as the John Barleycorn Memorial Pub never charges a cover. Once you're deemed old enough, step beyond the threshold into a wood-paneled entryway complete with an ATM and commemorative plates depicting painted scenes of the American Revolution (perhaps from the Franklin Mint). Pass through one more wooden door with paned glass, and you'll find yourself in an oasis of fine beer and good cheer. Mahogany wood paneling lines the two-foot thick walls around the room, and round-bulbed chandeliers emit an orange glow below the ornate, hand-tooled, black-painted tin ceiling. All of this combines to give John Barleycorn's a classic Chicago feel.
They laid him down upon his back,
And cudgell'd him full sore;
They hung him up before the storm,
And turn'd him o'er and o'er.
Once inside, you'll encounter a long wooden island bar that splits both halves of the bar once separated by a wooden partition but now reveals a series of cypress columns and two captain's wheels suspended from the ceiling. If you're eating, grab a seat at one of the cocktail tables at the east end of the bar or at one of the wooden low-slung tables on the west end. Guys, don't worry: a large flatpanel display is within eyeshot no matter where you plant your kiester. If the main room is too crowded and you don't feel like sitting in the dining room, head to the back room, accessible via a hallway that leads past the kitchen. The bathrooms are located where the hallway ends, and the back room is on your right through thick glass doors.
They filled up a darksome pit
With water to the brim,
They heaved in John Barleycorn,
There let him sink or swim.
Around the main room are several model clipper ships, some of which date back to the 1800s. These relics give John Barleycorn's a semi-nautical theme and were collected by the original owner, Eric J. Van Gelder, from his travels all over the world. Following a recent renovation, the large, hand-carved wooden portrait of a woman wearing a crown found behind the bar is gone. We hope they kept it as the sculpture was unearthed in 1986 when workmen came upon a hidden staircase leading to a secret room and found it in a corner, under a dusty oilcloth.
They laid him out upon the floor,
To work him farther woe,
And still, as signs of life appear'd,
They toss'd him to and fro.
They wasted, o'er a scorching flame,
The marrow of his bones;
But a Miller us'd him worst of all,
For he crush'd him between two stones.
And they hae taen his very heart's blood,
And drank it round and round;
And still the more and more they drank,
Their joy did more abound.
As for the kitchen, John Barleycorn's serves a good variety of appetizers, sandwiches, pastas, entrees, chili, and brunch on the weekend. Unfortunately, the quality of food and level of service is best described as hit-or-miss. On the numerous times I have been to the groggery, service has ranged from very good to appalling. As for the food, Barleycorn's promotes their "award-winning" half-pound burgers as the best in the city (like every other bar that serves burgers), but I've had one and wasn't that impressed as it was quite greasy but not nearly as greasy as the bland "cottage fries" (read: thick potato chips) served with every sandwich. Better burgers can be found at Jury's, Moody's Pub and even Crabbby Kim's Bikini Bar. On the other hand, I've had John Barleycorn's Louisiana Chicken Sandwich topped with mozzarella and a spicy sauce, like that which is used on buffalo wings, and it was spanking gorgeous. Click here for the whole menu.
John Barleycorn was a hero bold,
Of noble enterprise,
For if you do but taste his blood,
'Twill make your courage rise.
For what used to be a Chinese laundry, the place looks pretty good. The back bar itself looks like the twin of the front bar, except that it only stretches along one wall. Behind the bar are yet more model ships and nautical paintings, complimented by a small suit of armor and an acoustic guitar. You can find seating in high-backed wooden chairs at the bar, or at one of the smattering of tables around the room. The best seating in the wintertime is at one of the low-rider tables in front of the fireplace, with more busts and a sculpture in bass relief above the mantel (complimenting the ocean sunset picture above the door). Another big screen TV can be seen on the east wall, on the other side of the room. Here in the back room, a barmaid bought a group of friends and myself a round one night. This was interesting timing as we had just discussed a program seen on TV by someone in the group that detailed the best way to get a bartender's attention. The program suggested that patrons never yell "Hey!," snap their fingers, point, or wave money around. Instead, patrons should wait until eye contact is made, and then sit still. If you do this and tip well, free booze should be flowing (or at least a free lemon drop shot). Unfortunately, this strategy has been proven to get you nothing at the Wild Hare, Joe's or the Park West nothing including your drink, bought and paid for. But I'm not bitter...
'Twill make a man forget his woe;
'Twill heighten all his joy:
'Twill make the widow's heart to sing,
Tho' the tear were in her eye.
Simply put, the beer garden at John Barleycorn's is one of the best in the city, rivaling that of Castaways, Moody's Pub, Charlie's on Webster, and even the much lauded one at Sheffield's. The beer garden is accessible either through the dining room or the back room, and is filled with metal tables and chairs and a row of trees. Cub games are projected on the western wall of the beer garden and, while a nice touch, has sadly replaced the serenity of the white stone Zeus-like heads that spewed water down the walls, in-between Greek columns with hanging plants, and next to statues of cherubs perched on small pedestals are a thing of the past. Helicopters can sometimes be heard overhead as they rush patients and transplants to and from Children's Memorial Hospital. A retractable canopy shades patrons and keeps out the elements. Wrought iron railings with their leafy designs keep out drunken patrons from spilling into the beer garden from the sidewalk and once held back Christmas trees sold there in "the off-season." In addition to the beer garden, outside seating is also available in the sidewalk café that runs along the north side of John Barleycorn's, which is also surrounded by a wrought railing adorned potted plants.
During the day, John Barleycorn's attracts a variety of couples, groups of friends and families, ranging all over the map in age. I recall one family on a Sunday morning that didn't mind their 5-year-old son climbing all over the rickety scaffolding set up at the time in the beer garden. One hopes that as John Barleycorn patrons get older, they get more responsible. As with most bars in the area, the crowd gets younger as the night wears on. On the weekends, the place swarms with locals, students from DePaul and suburbanites, and lines form quickly outside of the pub. Fortunately, the lines dissipate quickly as well and it's much quieter from Sunday through Wednesday. John Barleycorn's is also a very popular meeting point for clubs and organizations in the area, including the Pine Point Ski Club. Some things haven't changed since John Barleycorn's opened, as evidenced from Jory Graham's description of patrons in 1967: "The congregation is post-college and older with a sprinkling of artists, law and seminary students, even church groups after meetings. A girl alone or two girls are welcome and will be protected by the bartender, who will also refuse to serve customers who are loud.
Then let us toast John Barleycorn,
Each man a glass in hand;
And may his great posterity
Ne'er fail in old Scotland!
While the service can be inconsistent, and the crowds can at times be annoying during prime time, John Barleycorn's is a Lincoln Park institution and is one of the best bars in the city. The bar was even featured in the film, Primal Fear, starring Richard Gere, and sponsors Toys for Tots each year at Christmas-time (like Finley Dunne's). What more could you want in a pub? Well, for those who like a good bar, but are more interested in dancing and picking up, check out John Barleycorn's Wrigleyville, where you will find the same food, nautical theme and classical motif, but with the addition of a cavernous dance floor on the second story. For more information, check out the John Barleycorn Memorial Pub website, where you can also find details on their other holdings, Social Twenty-Five and Moe's Cantina. Aye, laddy!
"To say John Barleycorn is only a saloon is to say that the Great Wall of China is merely a fence."
~ Have a good story relating to this bar? Email us. ~
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The Old Look:
Editor's Note: the following excerpt is from the initial John Barleycorn review from 2001. Perhaps the most notable aspect of John Barleycorn's dining room is the projection of over 5,000 slides from the Art Institute onto a small screen near the ceiling. This slide show has run continuously since Van Gelder opened the pub in the 1960s. In a conversation with Jory Graham, Van Gelder comments, "We can't show requests except by the happy chance of spotting them immediately. We have 76 Van Gogh slides. Did you know Renoir was a dirty old man?" Patrons can view the many slides, spanning many different periods, to the sound of classical music. If you don't care for classical music, that's too bad because that's all they play although the music often gets drowned out by the crowd as the evening wears on. Head over to the Wise Fools Pub for live music or The Apartment for dance music on the weekends, both of which are located just down the block on Lincoln. They used to also show silent movies on another screen but Fatty Arbuckle has since been replaced by the game or SportsCenter. In an interesting juxtaposition to the classical, nautical theme are the two big screens found on both sides of the dining room, which often command the attention of patrons in spite of their artistic sensibilities.
Just to the left of the clipper ship exhibit, wooden statue and over 30 beers on tap (but no Budweiser products), lies a mounted moose head reminiscent of the one found at Will's Northwoods. It was here, under this impressive taxidermy and in front of the windows overlooking scenic Lincoln Avenue, that I found myself in a situation that has come to be known as, "The Blue Moon Incident." The story begins in 2000, when an Australian referred to only as "Mad Dog," was asked by a friend to look after an American girl traveling to Melbourne on vacation. Mad Dog showed her the town: the impressive sites, the finest restaurants and the swankiest clubs. While nothing romantic transpired, the American girl thanked Mad Dog for showing her an excellent time and mentioned that, if he were ever to find himself in Chicago, he should look her up. Mad Dog assumed that she would like to repay his hospitality with something similar if presented with the opportunity. Then, in 2001, Mad Dog took a vacation to our fair city of Chicago, with a few of his closest mates, to visit another friend of his working here for a year at a travel agency. Over the course of a few weeks, Mad Dog tried to reach his American friend a few times without success. Finally, he was able to get her on the phone and she agreed to meet up with him, his Aussie mates, and a few others including myself at John Barleycorn's. As we wait for the girl's imminent arrival, we all consume several Blue Moon blonde ales, served complete with orange wedges, all in nervous anticipation. She arrives, late, along with one of her girlfriends and another guy. Over the course of the next two hours, his friends and I busied ourselves by scrutinizing the conversation and his potential, and consuming many more Blue Moons. As we did so, we collectively perceived his chances to be rather slim as her male "friend" was acting suspiciously like a prospective boyfriend. The guy in question did an excellent job of not cock-blocking Mad Dog, as he was chatting away with the girl in question, and he even hung out with us for a time. He didn't have to. She was obviously more interested in him, as she hung on every word and made eyes at him. After a while, the dude takes off, leaving Mad Dog with the two girls. Sadly, what appeared to be a nice turn of events for Mad Dog didn't pan out. The girl left shortly afterwards, and did not call Mad Dog again even though he was still in town for another week, and so was she. We all observed that this was a poor display of hospitality, and a sad display of the selfishness and rudeness not uncommon with girls in this city. Several more Blue Moons were consumed out of sympathy (and some empathy) for Mad Dog.
However, before Her Rudeness left, there was another interesting turn of events on the part of her girlfriend. This other girl, dressed in purple, began to take a keen interest in Mad Dog. This other girl was as aggressive towards Mad Dog, as Mad Dog was for Her Rudeness. If the guy had really been interested in this other girl, it would have been a situation to make Albert Camus proud. Those of us in the peanut gallery, with judgment and good taste thoroughly clouded due to the vat of Blue Moon Ale we had consumed, dubbed the other girl the "Purple People Eater." Then, as she pounced on Mad Dog, she became known as the "Purple Penis Eater." While the object of his desire was slipping away, the Purple Penis Eater issued a rather indecent proposal for him to join her the next evening at Marge's. Unfortunately, what I thought to have been good advice at the time, has Mad Dog questioning his moves to this day. I suggested that he pass on the Purple Penis Eater's suggestive offer. She was not much to look at and Marge's is a dive. I suggested instead for Mad Dog to join us for another night of drunken oblivion with the lads at the Irish Oak. I now think this was an error in my judgment that prevented Mad Dog from enjoying a passionate tryst one that turned out to be his best chance to get some on his trip. Alas. One must always take a mediocre sexual opportunity in a foreign country over drinking with the same people you've been drunk with, and unsuccessful with, for the last three weeks. This same erroneous thinking also led all of us to Deja Vu for yet more drinking, even though we were already obliterated. We fit in with the crowd perfectly. Following a shaky consumption of a quarter bottle of Bud, I cabbed it home. There, I capped off the evening by consuming half of a small, chicken shish-kabob and emitting excessive flatulence. I was feeling a bit rough the next morning, but as I recounted the activities of the night before, I had an experience much like Mr. Deasy's in James Joyce's Ulysses: "A coughball of laughter leapt from his throat dragging after it a rattling chain of phlegm." This, combined with the lurid events surrounding Her Rudeness and the Purple Penis Eater, came to be known as "The Blue Moon Incident." Although it is clearly innocent, we blame the outcome of these events entirely on Blue Moon Ale!