1555 N. Dayton St. (1600N, 800W)
Chicago, IL 60622
"Just plain uncategorizable" – Time Out Chicago
Weeds is located at the corner of Weed and Dayton Street, on the stretch of Weed where all the other bars are not located (they are two blocks west), otherwise known as the "back of beyond." The tavern is overshadowed by the gargantuan, now defunct, Homemaker's-Expo warehouse in a dark, yet decent neighborhood, and is close to where the Golden Ox once pulled its plow. Weeds is truly a unique experience. "I think we're the only normal bar in Chicago," lies Sergio Mayora, the head bartender, artist-in-residence and public face of the tavern. I think of Weeds as a cross between Delilah's or Shoes Pub, and the Hideout. The establishment dates back to at least 1928 when it was known as, "Flisser Anton Soft Drinks." Weeds Tavern, also known as the "Fifteen 55 Club" for its address, was established in 1964 and, though the neighborhood was terrible back then thanks to nearby Cabrini Green, has been going strong ever since.
Upon walking into Weeds, one is first greeted by a hastily painted wooden bust of Sergio Mayora, sculpted by Roger Avers, looking up at one of the TVs, holding a bottle of Cuervo Tequila. Upon my first visit, I observed the real Sergio standing next to the bust, in the same pose, with the same overalls and tinted glasses, although sans Tequila bottle (though I'm sure one was close at hand). Tequila is Mayora's favorite drink, of which you might get a free shot of if you're new to the bar, an old regular, or if he's tipsy. According to Sergio: "We ran out of tequila twice, and nobody knew what to do. It was like a Mexican restaurant running out of beans." It reminds me of the bald, ex-Navy Seal owner/bartender of the long-gone Spike's Rat Bar that routinely gave away free lemon drop shots. Let's hope the Cuervo continues to flow at Weeds like a smoothly-running La Preferida assembly line.
The linoleum-laminated bar juts out from the eastern wall, allowing patrons a chance at one of the high-backed, very comfortable wooden barstools almost three-quarters of the way around it. Beyond the bar are a smattering of cocktail tables, a pool table (covered for performances), an electronic dartboard and Golden Tee machine.
Weeds is also an intriguing place to see live performances and their sound system is one of the few in Chicago that does not cause your ears to ring as soon as you've left. Thursdays feature the Jimi Jon Jam Experience and Saturdays feature live bands, but rockers beware: the house rules state that bands will not be paid by the bar. Instead, performers must staff someone of their own at the door to charge a cover. My friend's band "Bed" forgot to put someone at the door, so it was a night of music for free. Prior to that, I saw a jazz combo for $2.
Monday is "Free Your Mind Poetry Night," a "frontier style" vocal free-for-all for poets, complete with plenty of ribald language and sometimes bilingual poetry (English and Spanish), now hosted at 10:00pm by the "G. Man," Gregorio Gomez (poets need to sign up one hour before). This tradition began in 1987 with Marc Smith, who now hosts the Green Mill's "Uptown Poetry Slam" on Sundays. Monday-night poetry slams helped Weeds become, according to e-poets.net, "one of Chicago's most egalitarian poetry venues." Poets beware: the crowd (including Martinez and Mayora) are rowdy and not afraid to hurl obscenities or criticisms at any poet – but not for bad poetry, only bad attitude. Even Sergio performs the only two poems he has ever written, dating back to his years in middle school. He must recite them every week, as I witnessed the crowd yelling out the last word of every line in synch with Sergio. Weeds has also played host to poetry festivals and is a good example of where you can find some of the best poets in Chicago, both young and old. Check out the Weeds Monday MySpace page for more info and for Gregorio's famous poem, The City, which he often ends Monday night with. Prior to performances, you'll find a small pool table in front of the performance area. The ripe-smelling bathrooms are located down the hallway, to your left. Bring a permanent marker.
Also of note, is the beer garden at Weeds, formerly an auto body shop that was torn down. Once referred to by The Official Chicago Bar Guide (1994) as "dumpster Baroque," with its interesting assortment of lawn furniture, aforementioned dumpster, a piano that's seen better days (much better), and shredded plastic bags caught on razor wire surrounding the outside walls. Today, this triangular space now offers several new tables with umbrellas, a small structure with lattice walls, a free game of bags or "cornhole," and is one of the least-known and most spacious beer gardens in the city. They are planning to install a kitchen at Weeds but, until then, the Tamale Guy usually makes at least one nightly appearance and the owner's son John grills up free, authentic Mexican food every Friday night from 5-9pm.
Above the bar once hung hundreds of bras, panties, jockstraps, condoms, and shoes hanging from the ceiling, and other various oddities scattered across the room. In his article, "1 Man's Garbage is Treasure for Weeds Tavern Decoration," Steve Dale recounts, "As factories slowly moved from the area, the crowd dwindled. Mayora took over ownership in 1985. 'The place was filthy, scuzzy,' he says. 'The first thing we did was clean it up, and we changed the name to Weeds. My friends said, 'You can't do that; they'll think you're all smoking dope in there.' So, I got the idea to put in candles and incense, and I figure I'll let people think whatever they want.' But a little housekeeping and the name change didn't seem to matter. Business was so bad Mayora says that he never had to take out the trash. 'I went to my family for a loan and they said, 'No way.' So, I decorated the place, the only way I could afford, with garbage,'" (Chicago Tribune, June 30, 1989).
According to the manager, Greg Martinez, "The bras are kind of a holdover from Underwear Night. People wear their underwear outside their clothes. Someone threw their bra up there.'' At which point others, many others, followed. On another theme night, Audubon's Birthday, a legacy of shoes was left in the rafters. Mayora wanted to bring in stuffed birds to honor Audubon, but when that proved too expensive, he naturally substituted a box of shoes that was found in an alley (as you do). The night was renamed ''Birdbrains and Stupid Shoes Day.'' Patrons later left poems in the shoes. I still haven't received an adequate explanation for the condoms. A few years ago, the undergarments and shoes were gone temporarily when they replaced the drop ceiling, except for a few bras hung on the eastern wall. I'm sure they'll be looking to replenish the supply, ladies...
"In the summer of 1999, my wife & I drove around the block in this area of town, to find some damn street or the other (from Kansas City, with a roadmap in our face, though we came to Chicago every other year since 1977)... driving up the street about 8:30p.m. We saw the entry to Weeds and we could see Sergio's sculptural face at bar level staring out into the night, so what could we possibly do but go in? It was Monday night. It (poetry night) was a top-ten highlight of our life. We were early enough to get a prime seat at the bar at the front. Sergio was in a most appropriate mood (not always the case) and gave us some drinks to go with our several beers and all the great entertainment... but, after midnight, it was too late to get food, so Sergio sent out for stuff to be delivered to the bar just for us as we were getting hammered. We finished it off by 1:00a.m. and got back to the Cass Hotel. We could talk about that night for a hundred years. But, my wife died from colon cancer last fall, so it will just be a big old perfect memory as long as I live."
– G.J. (March 3, 2004)
Weeds is a great place to have a beer and a shot, listen to some music or slam poetry, and chill out. The crowd can best be described as odd, yet diverse, just like those who work there. And with free food on Friday, and free cornhole every day, you can't go wrong at Weeds in summer unless Sergio brings you too many tequila shots. For more information, check out the Weeds Tavern MySpace page. Dig it.
"Half a block from hell and a million miles from nowhere, this is purgatory..."