Special Note II: The second Brother Jimmy’s in Chicago, turned “Brother Joey’s” closed in 2004 and is now Casey Moran’s. However, you can still find not just one but four locations of Brother Jimmy’s in New York City and one possibly on the way in Boston.
Special Note: As of February 22, 2002, Brother Jimmy’s reopened on Clark Street, then turned into “Brother Joey’s,” and then shut. The original Brother Jimmy’s is now Mad River (which replaced Blue Iguana North).
Of all the bars that have come and gone in Chicago, one that will be truly missed is Brother Jimmy’s BBQ & Booze. Many found fault with Brother Jimmy’s, as it was often criticized in reviews for having a “frat-boy atmosphere.” There is some truth in this, but you didn’t go to Brother Jimmy’s for a quiet pint. These comments were often made by people that consider themselves barbeque and blues connoisseurs, which I find to be an oxymoron. Brother Jimmy’s was not the place for those with these expectations. Instead, you went to Brother Jimmy’s to revel in North Carolina roadhouse style: to gorge yourself on barbeque and other down home Southern cookin’, yell yourself hoarse for your favorite ACC team (if you have one), get loaded, and get down. Brother Jimmy’s was one of my favorite bars and I am going to miss it.
Brother Jimmy’s opened in 1989, and was the Chicago “branch” of the New York City-based, three restaurant chain of the same name. As the story goes, the Chicago branch was managed locally, and not very well as it teetered on bankruptcy at least a few times in the past. However, Brother Jimmy’s survived in Chicago because each time it got into trouble, it was bailed out by its New York ownership. Unfortunately, it got into trouble one too many times and, in 2001, Brother Jimmy’s the doors were shut for good.
The Brother Jimmy’s legacy began in 1988, when the first restaurant opened in New York City at 1572 First Avenue. This strange and unique addition to Gotham’s landscape was inspired by such legendary North Carolina slow-smokin’ BBQ joints as Melton’s in Rocky Mount, Wilbur’s BBQ in Goldsboro, and Maurice Bessemer’s Piggy Park in Columbia, South Carolina. The intent was to educate ignorant Northern masses on barbeque and how to enjoy it properly, and college sports of the ACC. The original location moved down the block to First Avenue and 76th Street in 1990 to accommodate more patrons, and then moved again in 2000 around the corner on Second Avenue between 77th and 78th. 1996 witnessed the opening of the second NYC location of Brother Jimmy’s (the “Bait Shack”) at 1644 Third Avenue (at 92nd Street), and the third New York location opened at Amsterdam Avenue and 80th Street.
Back in Chicago, Brother Jimmy’s used to be located on Sheffield, between Oakdale and George, just down the block from Vaughan’s Pub and Classic Desserts. Brother Jimmy’s was easy to find with its large cartoon murals of pigs advertising “Carolina Cookin’.” What better way to advertise barbeque, I ask? Another pig sat perched expectantly over the doorway, over multicolored Christmas lights and plate glass doors made to look like wooden screen doors found in the country. As one would walk in at night, one would be expected to flash their ID and pay the cover charge, preferably in one quick motion. By day, you’d walk straight in as Brother Jimmy’s would be in full-on restaurant mode. You could also grab a seat at one of the green plastic tables and chairs in the sidewalk cafe in summertime.
Inside Brother Jimmy’s warehouse-sized expanse, you could grab a seat no matter how large your party at one of the wooden tables along the south side of the room. Red and white-checkered tablecloths covered the tables, and t-shirts, concert bills, American flags, license plates, beer signs, pigs, string lights, and ACC paraphernalia covered the wood-paneled walls. Brother Jimmy’s high wooden ceiling was also adorned by flying pigs, large beer banners, burlap, and wooden crates. The decor evoked a “beer-commercial setting” as once described in Zagat’s. Additional tables could be found in the back, in front of the stage and behind the stage in the loft area. The second-level loft area was enclosed by chicken wire nailed to wooden slats so that beer bottles wouldn’t find their way to the stage or to another patron’s head. It seems that Brother Jimmy’s learned from Bob’s Country Bunker in the Blues Brothers.
Brother Jimmy’s menu offered some of the best Southern cookin’ in the city. The menu started off with such Southern delicacies as sweet potato fries, Cajun popcorn shrimp, hush puppies with maple butter, fried green tomatoes, and fried okra. While it was indeed on the menu, and most likely ordered by many Northern patrons, it is my firm belief that only a Southerner can truly enjoy, let alone stomach, fried okra. Some Northerners claim this about grits as well, but they are wrong. Rib tips and buffalo wings were also available, served in buckets, and a good variety of salads for the ladies. Entrees included red beans and rice, beef brisket, pork chops, blackened catfish, and most notably, ribs served in one of three ways. The first was referred to as “Northern Wet,” described as, “sweet & tender, falls off the bone.” The Official Chicago Bar Guide considered the Northern ribs the best of the three in 1994. “Dry Rub,” was the second style of ribs and was made with 21 spices: “Tastes like a great piece of country sausage! Spicy!” The last type of ribs was simply called, “Southern Style,” and were, “smoked four hours, spicy and tart.” Most consider the dry rub ribs the best found at Brother Jimmy’s as the Southern Style was a bit vinegary. All of Brother Jimmy’s BBQ was smoked up to 10 hours, in-house, using hickory “imported” from North Carolina and a handmade smoker built by a man from the Carolina hills named “Wade.” Marvelous – good ol’ Wade. Some of the best pulled pork and po’ boy sandwiches could also be found at Brother Jimmy’s, along with a fine selection of sides to compliment your meal, including collard greens, black-eyed peas, macaroni & cheese, candied yams, and of course, cornbread. Desserts like pecan pie and the Southern Comfort brownie would provide the appropriate finale for your feast. In 2000, Brother Jimmy’s was one of four bars nominated for Citysearch: Chicago’s “Editor’s Pick” for the Best Barbeque category.
In the 2002 edition of Zagat’s Chicago restaurant survey, Brother Jimmy’s was rated as having good food, and fair to good service and decor, with an average meal costing you about $19. Keep in mind, Zagat’s defines an “average meal” as having one drink, which was virtually impossible at Brother Jimmy’s. While Brother Jimmy’s no longer serves it up, one can still find great barbeque at Smoke Daddy in Wicker Park, Bone Daddy in the Ukrainian Village, Stanley’s Kitchen & Tap in Lincoln Park, Wishbone in West Town, Twin Anchors in Old Town, Chicago Joe’s in Lakeview, Miller’s Pub downtown, and Carson’s Ribs in the suburbs.
Across the crowded aisle from the dining area was a long wooden bar, with some of the most uncomfortable, unpadded wooden barstools in the city. It’s a good thing the bar was so long as it always seemed to be crowded with patrons and waitresses bedecked in white Brother Jimmy’s dancing pig t-shirts. Here you could order over 30 types of beer, over 35 types of bourbon, and a plethora of Brother Jimmy’s specials including the “Carolina Cooler,” “White Lightnin’ Punch” (a drink so strong that there was a limit of two per person), “Plantation Punch,” “Texas Tea” (basically a Long Island Iced Tea served in a Mason jar), and a drink that allegedgly inspired Jimmy Buffett to write Margaritaville known as the “Myrtle Beach Margarita.” My personal favorite was the “Creepin’ Jesus.” This “drink” was grape-flavored and served by the pint or in a fishbowl with a dozen straws sticking out spider-like, at least a foot-and-a-half from the bowl. It was smooth, strong and would creep up on me indeed. The Creepin’ Jesus was also known as the “Purple People Eater,” not to be confused with the “Purple Penis Eater” (part of the Blue Moon Incident at John Barleycorn’s). There were also beverages known as “Swamp Water,” served in a 90-ounce vat, the “Trash Can Punch” served in a two-gallon Mason jar, and “Tarheel Moonshine” that caused the owner of Brother Jimmy’s grandfather to get busted by the Feds 1948. Today, you can still get fishbowl drinks over at Slow Down! Life’s Too Short on Elston if the mood for Spring Break levels of drunkenness strikes. Brother Jimmy’s also had an impressive variety of “house shooters,” including the “Blue Devil,” “Hog Juice,” “Alabama Slammers,” “Buttery Nipples,” and “Cape Fear” (described as “lethal”).
If you were feeling a bit restless at the bar, you could head over to the pool room known as the “World Famous Hog Room” around the corner from the south end of the bar. This room offered a few beat-up, beer-soaked pool tables, scuffed cement floors, and seating at wooden folding chairs in front of the large plate glass windows. This room was also commonly used for private parties.
Wherever you were at Brother Jimmy’s, you couldn’t take your eyes off the TV as one was located wherever you looked. Here, rabid ACC fans in baseball hats would loudly cheer on Duke, UNC and NC State. There was no better place in Chicago to watch the Demon Deacons take on the Terps. Unfortunately, Brother Jimmy’s also showed NASCAR racing, a sport so boring and inane that it makes golf and synchronized swimming seem extreme. Sports fans would typically roll in on the weekend for the Brother Jimmy’s $17.95 all-you-can-eat rib special and make-your-own-Bloody-Mary-bar sometime around noon. To properly get the most out of this deal, one would typically go with as many friends as possible so that someone was eating at all times. Otherwise, if there was a lull in rib consumption, you’d be handed the check and expected to leave (or at least to head over to the bar). If you were good at it, you could stuff yo’ face all day long with as many ribs as you could handle, while washing it down with an ocean of beer. If you had the stamina, you would then groove to one of the cover bands that came on later without having to pay the cover charge. Otherwise, you’d probably head home around dinner time, pass out, and wake up the next day. Evidently, most people at least had the stamina to consume several hours’ worth of ribs as this could be the biggest reason for the fall of Brother Jimmy’s. Ten-cent wings and $5 pitchers on Wednesday nights probably didn’t help the bar’s bottom line either.
While Brother Jimmy’s has often been described as a “BBQ & blues joint,” I never encountered the blues at Brother Jimmy’s upon many visits, at least from the last half of the 1990’s to its close in 2001. If you wanted blues, then or now, one should head to Kingston Mines, Buddy Guy’s Legends or B.L.U.E.S. Instead, Brother Jimmy’s had a cover band on, every night of the week. The best of these bands included Lightning & Thunder on the last Saturday of every month, Arthur Lee on Wednesdays, and bands like Underwater People, Mr. Blotto and Uncle John’s Band played regularly to big crowds. The tables in front of the stage would be cleared away as diners wrapped up around 9:00 p.m. Shortly thereafter, the band would come on and perform in front of a large, hand-painted sign depicting the state of North Carolina in all its glory.
The only problem with catching a show at Brother Jimmy’s was that the entrance to the kitchen was located to the right of the stage. This created a situation where people listening to the band where in-between the staff and hungry patrons. As a result, waitresses and busboys would continuously brush past patrons throughout the show. This logistical problem was as annoying as the logistical problem of waitresses trying to get to the bar at Southport Lanes. One night, this problem was exacerbated by the earbashing I received from a friend talking about his college flood plain business, of all things. Fortunately, the Creepin’ Jesus-es crept in, my friend shut up and I could enjoy the bad setting me firmly in Hog Heaven. Today, you can catch many of these same bands at Cubby Bear, Joe’s, Hog Head McDunna’s, and Lakeview Links.
Ironically, at least for me, not only has Brother Jimmy’s moved on but so have a number of my friends that I used to hang out with there. Some have gotten married, had babies and moved back to the neighborhoods where they grew up. Others have become entrenched in relationships where they either find their fun in other ways than going out to bars, or don’t have much fun at all any more as their responsibilities have overloaded them. Others yet just don’t have it in them anymore and complain that they just can’t drink like they used to. Sometimes this makes it hard for me because I look back on the good ol’ days and realize that in some ways, like Brother Jimmy’s itself, they’re gone for good. On the other hand, life moves on and you find other things to have fun with – things other than getting wasted during the day or flailing away to covers bands at night. Regardless, I wish Brother Jimmy’s was still around so that I could go back any time, whenever the mood strikes.
How could this happen? How could a bar as popular and as well known as Brother Jimmy’s go out of business? Gone also is Bamboo Bernie’s of the same ownership and similar popularity, although one location remains on the Caribbean isle of St. Maarten (you could easily have less reason to go…). It turns out that the building had been up for sale for years and was finally sold, perhaps to make room for more condos. I hadn’t been to Brother Jimmy’s for over a year prior to its closing, but people told me that the wait for tables would often take hours, and then you’d have a two-hour limit. They also said the quality of food declined significantly, they upped the price of wings to $0.15 each on Wednesdays (I’m sure that additional five cents per wing really went a long way), and the bands increasingly conflicted with restaurant-goers, as the speakers above each table would blast you out at a level often described as “sickening.” To me, it sounded like the bar may have started to lose money, perhaps because their specials were under-priced and over-consumed, and they started to cut corners on food preparation and by getting bands to start earlier so they could charge a cover to more people. I have found that when a bar starts taking shortcuts like these, the bar is likely to be in a death spiral. However, it sounds like the management of Brother Jimmy’s has regrouped after a brief hiatus and we can all happily put some South in our mouths again though in a smaller venue and perhaps without the bands.
“Thank you for your editorials over the years about our past establishments in Chicago, Brother Jimmy’s and Bamboo Bernie’s. I loved Chicago and miss it still. We continue to operate four Brother Jimmy’s in NYC and a Bamboo Bernie’s in the Caribbean on the Island of St. Maarten; www.bamboobernies.net and www.brotherjimmys.com. One day I’d like to think that we will return to Chi Town with a few new concepts as well as a few old concepts. Your articles are generally fairly accurate. Especially your article on the demise of Brother Jimmy’s.”
– Jim “Brother Jimmy” Goldman (January 4, 2006)
“Holy cow!!! BROTHER JIMMY’S closed?????? My husband and I went there for lunch the day following my first date with my husband at the Great Beer Palace! What a huge loss! Why are all these wonderful bars closing? By the time my kids are old enough to go to Chicago for their ‘life experience’ there will be nothing left. Please tell me that Vaughn’s is still open on Sheffield. Why do all the good bars close and tourist traps like Mother’s stay open for centuries!!!”
– Shelley Powell (March 1, 2004)
Brother Jimmy’s on Sheffield was a place where you’d not want to wear your best clothes as you’d be sure to get barbeque sauce on yourself and/or beer spilled on you. Handi-Wipes can only do so much. However, you wouldn’t mind because Brother Jimmy’s was one of the best bars in the entire city, even though you’d often have to put up with the “Abercrombie & Fitch” crowd. If you want to experience the best of North Carolina culture today, Brother Jimmy-style, you still can but you’ll have to head to the new location on Clark or to New York City (New York City?!? Get a rope…). Or, you could visit the Brother Jimmy’s website for a game of “Whack the Pig.” Shut up and drink – go Tar Heels!
“Love the Brother Jimmy’s memoriam. My brother and I feel the same way. We were there from the day it opened it’s doors. I never worked there, but I had all the shirts and hats and people actually thought I did. The pulled pork, northern ribs, macaroni etc. was awesome. The drinks, ‘Creepin’ Jesus, Plantation Punch, Texas Tea, Carolina Cooler’… Well, let’s just say I had my share. And who could forget about the swamp water. I still string my x-mas tree with pig lights… I still talk to some of the old original bar tenders and waitresses. As a matter of fact, Dave Cook who was one of the managers owns the Elbo Room.”
– M. & S.S. (January 25, 2004)
“I worked at Brother Jimmy’s Chi-town from 1999-2001. I loved it there! I currently live in Boston and one is opening up in Harvard Square – Cambridge MA. I am actually going to work there along with my ‘real job’ because I missed the Chicago one so much.”
– D.H. (November 15, 2003)