In a part of the city known more for train tracks, purveyors of live chickens and an odd collection of nightclubs, Emmit’s Pub is easily the best bar in River West. However, it’s classic atmosphere, vintage decor and well-pulled Guinness, makes it also one of the best pubs in the city – so much so, that it has been the site of three major films over the last 15 years.
Emmit’s Pub is located at the southeast corner of the triangular intersection of Grand, Halsted and Milwaukee, across from the Funky Buddha Lounge and next to Richard’s Bar (on both Grand and Milwaukee, as Richard’s stretches from one side of the building to the other). Emmit’s is hard to miss with its bright green-painted facade with red trim, gold shamrocks and the brass-plated revolving door, the latter of which is one of the few you’ll find leading into a bar in all of Chicago that is not located in a hotel. Once inside, you’ll find a spacious room with walls of exposed brick, nicely tiled floor, and a two-story high ceiling held up in part by an enormous wooden pillar. One nice thing about the space is that the high ceiling combined with proper ventilation prevents the barroom from getting too smoky even though cigar smoking is still permitted (they even have a few stogies available for sale behind the bar). A series of padded wooden booths, separated by frosted glass panes, runs across the southeast corner of the room opposite a smattering of cocktail tables. The ornate, dark wooden bar runs the north wall of the room as does the mahogany back bar that sports a couple of TVs. Around the room, you’ll find pictures of firemen along the southeast wall as you walk in (an ATM as well), various write-ups of the bar, a player piano, homages to Ireland, a plethora of kickshaws acquired from local flea markets lying on the shelf high above the booths, and a fair bit of police paraphernalia including a small library of books that apparently belonged to one of the owners, being an ex-cop. Additional seating can be found at the southeast end of the room, both downstairs and on the balcony, where you’ll also find a Golden Tee machine, the whole of which is available for private parties (holds about 60). Picture albums featuring patrons through the years float around the bar.
As you would imagine, Emmit’s serves an impressive selection of pub grub. Start off with the mini burgers (my personal favorite, with two for $2.95 and each additional for $1.50), Irish bangers (sausages) with spicy English mustard, and the usual wings, chicken tenders, mozzarella sticks, potato skins, onion rings, and nachos. In the colder months, I recommend the potato leek soup, Mrs. Finnegan’s Irish Stew (made with braised beef, carrots, celery, onions, and barley served in an optional bread bowl) or the chili. A few salads are available of the Caesar, chef, taco and house variety. For those not on the Atkins diet, you can grab a ½ lb. burger, veggie burger, Italian beef, Rueben, corned beef, BLT, turkey club, grilled chicken, Sloppy Joe, meatloaf, grilled cheese, ham & cheese, or tuna salad. The tacos are pretty good as well, surprisingly. However, if you’re visiting Emmit’s Pub for the first time, you’ve got to have the homemade Shepherd’s Pie made with lamb and ground sirloin, mixed with an assortment of vegetables and topped with mashed potatoes – it’s $7.95 but is only available September through April. If that doesn’t float your boat, try the beer-battered fish & chips, meatloaf (optionally blackened) or 12″ pizza. To wash it all down, Emmit’s prides itself on a “well built” pint of Guinness, what the owners call “Chicago’s Finest Pint” and which is topped off with a shamrock if you’re lucky. You can also get Stella Artois, Bell’s, Blue Moon, Sierra Nevada, Michelob Ultra, Woodchuck Amber Cider, Goose Island Honker’s Ale, Newcastle, Bass, and Harp on tap. The usual domestic suspects can be found in bottles and Emmit’s also has a decent Scotch and wine selection. And Jameson’s fans, you’ve come to the right place: they go through so much whiskey, you’ll find a Jameson’s bottle suspended upside-down above the bar to get your glass full that much quicker.
The crowd at Emmit’s tends to be those filtering in for a pint after work, city workers, firefighters, the ladies that love them, softball teams (Emmit’s sponsors a number of softball teams, including mine for at least one year) and their women, members of the Young Irish Fellowship, and various other random elements seeking a good bar, such as my friend’s wife who told me this story:
Following an afternoon of merriment at Taste of Randolph, my friend and her girlfriend roamed northwards in the hopes of finding a bathroom on their way home. They couldn’t find anything, not even a decent alley, and in sheer desperation even offered to bare their breasts so that they could get into Bare Assets to pee without having to pay the $20 cover charge. What’s even more shocking is that they were denied (?!?). They thankfully found Emmit’s soon afterwards, just to the north sometime in the mid-afternoon. Following a quick calculation, and a trip to the can, they realized that they had just enough money to pay for a couple of beers and an order of nachos. This would leave them $3 or just enough to pay for each of them to take the bus home. Once the beers and nachos found there way down the hatch, the bartender offered the girls a deal on pints of cider from a keg that was old and about to go bad. They only had $3 left so they declined, but the bartender offered the pints for free anyway. Then another round followed, and another, all for no charge. This was followed, somewhat bizarrely, by the tenant upstairs that came down for milk to make his girlfriend a White Russian (for which no milk was available but several creamers offered in a small bucket sufficed). He and his girlfriend later came down for more drinks and the revelry continued. The girls then remembered that they had to leave so that one of them could make brownies for a family event the next day. Instead, the dweller upstairs offered to make them as he claimed to have a brownie mix and a penchant for baking. So, the girls stayed and enjoyed more almost-off cider. Before they knew it, the bar announced last call, but instead of leaving, the girls were invited to stay after hours along with all the off-duty cops, firemen and service industry employees that filled up the rest of the bar. At 5:00 a.m. it was time to leave as the bar finally closed down. Even though the girls managed to preserve their $3, the buses were no longer running. Seeing this, the bartender called a cab and gave the driver $20 to drive the girls home. They thanked the bartender as they left, at which point he yelled out, “Make sure [the cab driver] gives you change!” The girls finally made it back to their place. Two hours later, they woke up for the family event and, when it was time to go, they grabbed the brownies made by Emmit’s upstairs neighbor and, in the process, found them to be completely burnt. Even with the tragic brownie episode, the night itself ranks, “in the Top 3 best nights out” by my friend. You can only imagine what the top two were…
Other than the story above, the other most notable part of the Emmit’s legacy is that it was featured in the film Ocean’s Eleven in the scene where Matt Damen is recruited by George Clooney in the beginning of the film. The husband of my friend above was actually offered to be an extra in the film but couldn’t get his ass to the bar at 5:00 a.m. on Sunday morning when the extras had to report. He also told me that the extras had to bring three changes of clothing so that the director could choose what people would wear and filming would begin. A party followed afterwards. On a recent pub crawl, where Emmit’s Pub was highlighted, a fellow crawler named Kevin told me a story of when a drunken woman stumbled into the mensroom at Emmit’s, ironically looking for “John,” who was not to be found in there. Just before stepping back into the barroom, Kevin heard a big fight break out, and thought twice about opening the door. Seconds later, the door started to bulge inward. At that time, a shorter fellow asked if he could get out. “Just a minute,” was Kevin’s wise response. A few minutes later, the pugilists were tossed from the bar and both Kevin and his newfound friend were released from the confines of the john.
Though Emmit’s opened in 1996, the establishment has been a saloon since it originally opened in 1934, the year after Prohibition ended, though the establishment dates back to the 1890’s. Prior to its decent into groggery, the basement now currently used as a wine cellar, served as a savings and trust and catered to the Chicago mafia. Following Prohibition, the building served as a tavern, sporting a series of forgettable names, as the neighborhood surrounding it steadily deteriorated.
From 1981-1989, the space served as a rather interesting establishment called O’Sullivan’s Public House that reputedly attracted a cross-section of judges, lawyers, police officers, firefighters, and pressman from the nearby Chicago Tribune facility. O’Sullivan’s achieved a measure of notoriety when two would-be stickup men were gunned down by the off-duty cops inside the bar, and when Mayor Harold Washington personally called the bar to halt its infamous dwarf-tossing contests. Once Sullivan’s closed, the building remained vacant until 1993 when it was purchased and rehabbed by the current owners. While vacant, the place was used as a diner in the film Uncle Buck (1990), when John Candy’s character has dinner with his redheaded girlfriend near the beginning of the movie, and was also featured in Backdraft (1991), at the point in the film when there are “too many Baldwins” (according to “P Pogo” on his Chicago in Film list) as well as a once popular local band called The Drovers, who originally were formed at my alma mater, Northern Illinois University.
St. Patrick’s Day at Emmit’s
“When you lie, you lie with a beautiful person; when you cheat, you cheat death; when you think you need a drink, stop by Emmit’s”– Emmit’s toast
Emmit’s Pub prides itself on being an Irish pub, particularly as having been named after Robert Emmet, an Irish nationalist exiled from the Emerald Isle. The owners replaced the “e” in the proper spelling of Emmet with an “i” so that it could be dotted by a shamrock. Though I wouldn’t want to take anything away from this atmosphere, with its well pulled Guinness, corned beef & cabbage, “snug”-like booths, ancestry of the civil servants still frequenting the place, authentic Irish tablecloths, curtains, kickshaws and bartenders, and massive St. Patrick’s Day celebration complete with live bag pipers, I’ve Emmit’s Pub instead to be more of a classic, old-school bar of the distinct Chicago style, albeit with an Irish theme, similar to that of Kasey’s in Publisher’s Row, the Brehon Pub in River North, River Shannon in Lincoln Park, and Chicago’s Blarney Stone in Wrigleyville. Regardless of how truly Irish it is or not, Emmit’s is a great place where the craic is always mighty. For more information, check out the Emmit’s Irish Pub website, and May you be in heaven a half hour before the devil knows you’re dead!