Old Town Ale House
219 W. North Ave. (1600N, 200W)
Chicago, IL 60610
"Le Premiere Dive Bar"
When it's 2-3am and the spirit of drunkenness past comes calling, there's only one place to go in this part of the city: the Old Town Ale House, also known as the "Olde Towne Ale House." Cheap beers, sawdust, portraiture of the regulars through the years, a library of pulp fiction, and the occasional B-list celebrity can be found within the ramshackle environs of the Ale House, as if it were a Chicago version of McSorley's Old Ale House in New York City. Make no mistake, the Old Town Ale House is a self-proclaimed dive, and one that you will keep returning to despite protests from your liver. Just remember: in the words of my friend Bob, "The liver is evil and must be punished."
The Old Town Ale House, not to be confused with recent newcomer Old Town Pub found nearby on Wells, can be found at the southeast corner of North and Wieland, at the base of a nicely appointed red-brick four-flat. The present location is actually the second for this venerable institution, the first having opened in 1958 by Ed Van Gelder in a building, "which housed Michael Wolf's Zum Munchener Kindl at the turn of the century and the late Art Stoffel's 'men only' bar during and after prohibition," according to Will Leonard (excerpt from "Shelley's in Line for Citations for His Sallies" in the Chicago Tribune on November 30, 1958). The original caught on fire on February 9, 1971, at which point the bar and remaining furniture was shuffled across the street to 219 W. North Avenue in a "temporary" move that has lasted until today. Perhaps indicating that the move was less than temporary, in addition to the 36 years that have passed, is that the Old Town Ale House exterior was recently remodeled. The clapboard façade, showbill font, shingled west awning, and paned glass with yellow trim that gave the Old Town Ale House its signature dive-ish saloon feel has been replaced with a nicely wood-paneled forest green façade with matching awning.
"Proprietress Beatrice Klug describes her place, the Ale House, this way: 'We are the oldest saloon in Old Town, established in 1958, and we have ambience unique for the Old Town area; it is often described as piquant.'"
– Dennis McCarthy, The Great Chicago Bar and Saloon Guide (1985)
Despite the window dressing, regulars will be happy to note that nothing has been remodeled inside. The same battered wooden bar, matching the floor except for the tiled area up front, runs the length of the western wall below a tin ceiling of indistinguishable color. Behind the bar is such track-lit fandango as a stuffed bear playing a trumpet, a Maltese Falcon, giant wooden gorilla head, Japanese mask, photographs of former owners Arthur and Beatrice Klug, lewd paintings, and portraits of Old Town Ale House regulars from the early 70's up until the present day. In his Cezanne-like French Impressionistic style, fellow regular Bruce Elliott is responsible for this artwork—over 125 portraits in all—the rest of which can be found hanging throughout the room.
Correction: Bruce Elliott is no longer a regular. He now owns the pub along with his wife Tobin Mitchell. Beatrice Klug ran the place with her one-time-husband-turned-business-partner, Arthur Klug. One year before Beatrice Klug passed, she bequeathed the place to Tobin, who took care of the books for the Old Town Ale House, just prior to succumbing to cancer in August 2005 (Arthur passed earlier that year). Beatrice's only condition for the transaction: change nothing... Tobin did remove the cigarette machine, but the "no blender, no credit cards" policy remains staunchly applied. Another thing that's sure not to change is that they don't serve food at the Old Town Ale House – just a few bags of potato chips, Milkbones for the occasional canine patron, and plenty of ale both on tap and in bottles. Martini and Scotch drinkers need not apply.
"'His portraits do not generally flatter. Full of crags, creases, lines, and bags, his faces are studies in the physical effects of spending large portions of one's life in bars. Sometimes a subject will take offense when he hangs a new picture. Elliott describes a newspaper reporter who waited for years to see his likeness displayed. 'The minute it went up, he said if we didn't take it down he'd bring in his gun and shoot it,' he says. (Elliott took it down.) Another unhappy patron tore Elliott's portrait of him from its moorings, threw it on the ground, and jumped up and down on it. 'The picture survived,' Elliott says. 'He was barred for a while, though. It takes me four or five days minimum to do one, so if you do that it doesn't make me happy.'"
– excerpt from, "How a suburban school administrator and a retired golf hustler inherited a Chicago institution" by Scott Eden (Chicago Reader, November 10, 2006)
If you can't grab a high-backed stool at the bar, grab a seat in one of the alcoves on either side of the front door or in the slightly elevated seating area opposite the bar called the ''Old Town Ale House Book Sharing Library.'' This section of the bar features a smattering of tables and bookshelves filled with lend-one/take-one, "semi-best sellers, forgotten titles and true-crime pulp," according to Barfly's Guide to Chicago's Drinking Establishments (2000). Near the front of the bar, you'll find the "Curiosity Shop" that features a large bulletin board of various notices. Elsewhere, a large mural of Old Town regulars, painted by Maureen Munson in 1972 and stained brown from all the cigarette smoke through the years, hangs beneath portraits of the more famous regulars (including Nelson Algren, Mike Royko and Roger Ebert) upon a wood paneled wall that matches the ceiling, from which individual bulb lights hang from rusted chains. Less famous regulars who have passed can be found honored on the northwest corner's "Dead Wall," which is kitty corner from "Crazy Bitch Wall," above the pinball machine. A disturbingly large head of papier-mâché, found on the back wall and originally from a defunct establishment called Figaro's, rounds out the décor.
Through the years, the Old Town Ale House has attracted an eclectic array of society. It may be hard to imagine these days with all the high-priced real estate, but the area was once full of immigrants, followed by beatniks, then hippies and now yuppies. The Bohemians from yesteryear that haven't moved on, or died, can still be found at the bar during the week. One regular was a 90 lb. woman who, years ago, used to fall asleep in the front windows. One night, a man saw this and walked out with her slung over his shoulder but later dropped her off a half block away when stopped by alert regulars at the bar... Because the legendary Second City Theatre is located just around the corner, the Old Town Ale House has been the favorite to such infamous alumni as John Belushi, Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis, George Wendt, and Chris Farley, as well as folk singers that once performed at the late Earl of Old Town, including John Prine, Steve Goodman and Fred Holstein. When he wasn't at O'Rourke's, Old Town was also a hangout for Roger Ebert, and the Who's Roger Daltrey once starred in an independent movie filmed at the Ale House that reputedly didn't even make it to video, let alone the theaters. Old Town was most recently filmed in a pilot called, "Corner Tap," which is being shopped around to the networks as we speak but, since then, they don't want any more filming there as they can only film after close (4-5:00am) and when they open for deliveries (8:00am). In addition to the grizzled regulars, the pub attracts theatergoers before and after Second City improv performances and films across the street at Piper's Alley, current Second City performers, construction workers, actual and wannabe writers, and bookworms. The average age falls by a few decades after 2:00am on the weekends when the place gets jammed by area bartstaff and night owls. The Old Town Ale House even has its own page on Kizmeet's "Missed Connections" ala the Chicago Reader. Perhaps the crowd is best described by the editorial staff at Citysearch Chicago as: "one of the weirdest and most entertaining cross-sections of Chicago humanity." If the clientele isn't enough for you, additional entertainment can be had from the jukebox, specializing in jazz, swing and blues, and a couple of arcade games in the back corner. Chicago Bar Project recommendation: if you wish to avoid the ire of the regulars, do not attempt to play the jukebox at 3:00pm when rapt attention is paid to Inside Edition followed by Jeopardy!
Of additional note is the official t-shirt of the Old Town Ale House that depicts two women in a rather compromising position. The two in the t-shirt are bartenders at the Old Town, Ann Marie (the redhead) and "Evil" (real name: Evelyn). As Ann Marie told me, the only night she didn't come home to her husband of 20 years is when she spent a night at Evelyn's, presumably due to excessive alcohol intake. The artist then allowed his imagination to take hold on the events of that mysterious evening. Ah, what goes on behind close doors is anyone's guess...
"One of the authors' favorites. Winners, losers, and everyone in between. Some folks may not ever leave. Amiably aimless conversations at the bar countered by delusionary ramblings at the splendid tables in the front windows. Don't go in the daytime, real light isn't good to the interior that's best seen dim."
– The Official Chicago Bar Guide (1994)
I've found it difficult to recall details of Old Town Ale House visits as, mysteriously, my memories seem a bit clouded the next day. However, what I can remember is that the Old Town Ale House has a lively yet relaxed atmosphere that is quite difficult to find in this part of town. Add to that its late-night operation, and you've got a much more entertaining alternative for late-night Old Town than Burton Place or Amp Rock Lounge, even with its anti-trendiness and one-time atmosphere that smelled "a lot like death" according to one Yelp reviewer. The Old Town Ale House is as close to the Old Town of the 60s and 70s that you're going to find, making it a neighborhood landmark, classic Chicago joint and generally a pub that you'll not want to miss, particularly for those with a literary interest to go along with your boozin' when you're not hanging out in your van down by the river. For more information on the Old Town Ale House, they don't have a website so you'll have to give them a call or, better yet, head over there for an ale and you might even have your portrait painted. For more information, check out the Old Town Ale House website and, next time you're there, be sure to raise up your glass to the Klugs.
"If you've been out to Weeds and want to know where Sergio reputedly goes on his night off, step into this emporium for serious drinkers of the younger persuasion. No frills and all the more charming for it, this place can be thought of as an old-man bar without the old people (well, maybe a few), or a Tom Waits song with a slightly saner cast of characters."