The Brehon Pub was opened in 1980 by the Brothers Burke, two lads of Irish ancestry who named their new joint after a medieval form of Old Irish civil law that is referenced on their family’s coat of arms. Perhaps the idea was also inspired from a sting operation the Chicago Sun-Times conducted on corrupt city inspectors just prior to the Brehon Pub’s existence, when the establishment was leased by the paper and run as the “Mirage Tavern” specifically for the crackdown. Today, the only illusion at the Brehon Pub is your sobriety, particularly on St. Patrick’s Day when the Brehon Pub pulls out all the stops and, of course, everyone is “Oirish”… On any other day, the Brehon Pub is a classic Chicago neighborhood bar with an Irish name, offering a good selection of pub grub and libations in a relaxed atmosphere, similar to that found at O’Callaghan’s further south in River North, River Shannon in Lincoln Park, Finley Dunne’s in Roscoe Village and Emerald Isle further north in Rosedale.
Neighborhood and “Ung Roy, Ung Foy, Ung Loy”
The public house known as Brehon is located in River North, at the northeast corner of Wells and Superior and steps from the Chicago Brown Line El stop at Chicago Avenue. There, the Brehon Pub is nestled at the base of a four-story, red-brick building with green-painted corner accents. Matching green-and-white striped awnings hang over large windows with “Brehon Pub” scripted in gold. The Burke Family (“de Burca” in Gaelic) coat of arms with the family motto, “Ung roy, ung foy, ung loy,” (Gaelic for “one king, one faith, one law”) is depicted upon a red wooden sign, just above the plate glass door and neon shamrocks that blaze green in the night. A sidewalk café, filled with a half-dozen white plastic tables and chairs lies, around the corner on the Superior side of the bar and foot traffic is blocked off when open during warmer times.
Step inside this River North saloon and you’ll find a classic narrow Chicago barroom with white-and-green striped linoleum that matches the green-painted tin ceiling as well as the awnings out front, and old-fashioned globe lights hang from above. A long wooden bar with high-backed wooden barstools runs most of the length of the northern wall, the back of which was crafted by the woodworking legend Brunswick and features the Schlitz logo. Long cocktail tables extend from the southern wall and offer additional seating as does the best seat in the house found just inside the front windows overlooking the tree-lined Wells. At the rear of the front room, you’ll find the inevitable Golden Tee machine and electronic dartboard, and the Brehonian décor in this area consists of framed photos of famous Irish writers, along with the notably inarticulate Mayor Richard J. Daley, shillelagh and taped hurling stick, an Irish football (soccer) jersey from the 1994 World Cup, an Irish flag, and a few flatpanel TVs. A portal just beyond the bar leads to the back room at Brehon’s, which features a second, smaller metal-topped bar, walls of exposed brick, low-slung wooden tables, hanging Tiffany-style light fixtures, a small pool table, a few older televisions, and photos of the sting operation conducted when the joint was the Mirage Tavern (more information on this down below).
A Celtic Armada of Sustenance
Photo courtesy of Emily K. Berman
As any self-respecting “Irish pub” should, Brehon’s serves up such staples as the “Gov’nor’s” Shepherd’s Pie (not really Irish, but close enough…) and Guinness Stew, as well as non-Irish dishes with, at times, cleverly applied names, such as the Galway Nachos (with a “secret” ingredient), Lucky Pot of Spinach & Artichoke Dip, Brehon House (salad), Finn McCool’s House Wings, and Celtic Armada Eggrolls. You can also step it up to the Magnificent Surf n Turf, Ceviche Fish & Chips or the Grilled Mahi Mahi. The remainder of the menu consists of a fairly standard American pub grub selections, such as the quesadillas, chicken strips, tacos, and chicken pot pie. All of the above except a few of the seafood dishes can be had for under $10, which is very reasonable for this part of the city. If you’re not up for pub grub at the Brehon, no worries – the surrounding district is full of restaurants, notably Karyn’s Cooked (great vegetarian place across the street), Sushi Samba Rio, and Jay Leno’s favorite, Mr. Beef, just to the west on Orleans. Back at Brehon Pub, you’ll also find a decent selection of brew, from one of 17 on draft (including Guinness) that are served in frosted beer glasses, and more are featured in bottles and cans, with a few wines thrown in to boot for the ladies. Weeknights feature both food and drink specials. Your Chicago Bar Project advice: have some self-discipline and avoid partaking from the Jägermeister tap behind the bar – nothing good will come from that!
Brehon Pub is open at lunchtime, so you can be bad and sneak in a few cocktails before heading back to your day job. The pub is also a great spot for after-work cocktails and a starter bar on weekends. As a result, you’ll find a mixture of galleria types, a few suits, those of a casual sort from the area, and a few visitors filter in from time to time, all of whom are attracted to the welcoming ambience and warm pub vibe. Even Senator John Kerry stopped by for a pint as part of his presidential campaign in August 2003, and Brehon was also recently filmed as part of Fox’s TV show, Prison Break. As you would expect, Brehon Pub gets absolutely mobbed on St. Patty’s Day as part of the city-wide drunken orgy, when the joint hosts the Shannon Rovers Pipe Band and they even hire a few “LepreCAN” porta-potties outside to handle the “overflow.”
Not Everything Is as It Appears…
Photo courtesy of Mary Pat Case
The building housing the Brehon dates back quite a long ways, possibly to shortly after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Since then, the first floor establishment has served as the United Linen Supply in the 1950s and the Firehouse Restaurant in the 1970s, just prior to its being leased from August to Halloween of 1977 to the Chicago Sun-Times—yes, the Sun-Times—who opened the space as the “Mirage Tavern.” Why did one of the city’s major newspapers, a publication a friend of mine once claimed was not suitable to wrap fish with, open a bar? Why, to catch a thief of course and, in this case, with the help of the Better Government Association, the target was corrupt city inspectors taking bribes. Together, Pam Zekman and Zay Smith from the Sun-Times and Bill Recktenwald of BGA hired photographer Jim Frost to document inspectors taking $10-$100 kickbacks at the bar for overlooking health and safety code violations, and those state liquor inspectors involved in a tax skimming scheme. Frost took these photos while hidden at the back of the front room, high up on a platform over the men’s can. What is most impressive is that the sting led to 34 convictions, the story was featured by Mike Wallace on 60 Minutes, and Zekman and Smith damn near won a Pulitzer Prize for the resulting report that ran for five weeks in early 1978 (the series was originally meant to run for 25 weeks). The investigation was written about in full by Zekman and Smith in their 1979 book The Mirage.
In the article, “Tavern in a City,” Ray Pride summarizes the scene: “In those days… Forget Woodward and Bernstein, here is another form of journalism that twenty-first century corporate media does not countenance, cannot abide. Or, except for Jim Hogue at the Sun-Times, would not abide then. It was offered to the Trib, which worried, ‘what if someone got hurt at a Tribune-owned bar?’ Zekman says. There were six sets of books, and of the eventual site of the four months of shamanic sham, she says, ‘It was a total dump-‘ She pauses for effect- ‘But it was something the Sun-Times could afford. The inspectors came through, they were as corrupt as we were told they were. It was a project, an investigation, a dream assignment and a nightmare assignment. We were here impossible hours, the story could explode at any time.'” Sadly, city officials continue to openly take bribes to this day, with corruption being revealed almost every month. For those interested in hearing more about the story, it is often retold at the Brehon Pub as part of events hosted by organizations like the Society of Professional Journalists who discuss whether or not the effort was entrapment or went too far.
The Brehon Pub predates the area’s influx of high-end galleries, condos, restaurants and clubs. As a result, this humble corner bar holds a warm place in the hearts of River North pub enthusiasts, but also a spot in the folkloric annals of local Chicago history. In recognition of this, Brehon was featured on the second Chicago History Museum pub crawl, led by yours truly. On the crawl, I reminisced with one of my fellow crawlers named Kevin, and we both recall the club Cairo that used to be located kitty-corner to the pub – the same place a once saw the enormity of Frank Thomas in 1994, the year he would have won the Triple Crown had the season not been shortened and the game defiled by the players’ strike. Anyway, back at Cairo, girls would stand outside for up to an hour in the middle of winter in short dresses, waiting to get in. They would come into Brehon for a drink and some warmth, only to head back across the street to shiversville! Slaves to fashion, I suppose… If you like Brehon Pub, you may also like a few other saloons in the area with a neighborhood feel, including Celtic Crossings, Clark Street Ale House, Green Door Tavern, and Club Lago. For more information and an online menu, check out the Brehon Pub website. Until next time, ung beòir!
“Serving Guinness not gimmicks since 1980″