Historic Bars of Chicago by Sean Parnell

“Over 23 million glasses of beer have been served”

Photo courtesy of Stephen Gray

For those of you familiar with the nightly bedlam unassumingly known as “Rush & Division,” you can thank Butch McGuire. Following the dull Eisenhower years, ole Butch had the vision to create what he called, “The Singles Bar.” After borrowing $560 from his mother, he purchased a former speakeasy, opened his eponymous pub, and turned the vision into reality in 1961. His invention has not only led to tens of thousands of people hooking up, many of whom went on to get married, but also has helped turn this part of the Gold Coast into the most sought after destination for out-of-towners-on-the-make and hard-core Chicago drinkers. While a slew of imitations have come and gone, Butch McGuire’s is described by many as, “the standard by which all other Division Street bars are judged,” and, “a living museum of the Near North singles scene.” Simply put, Butch McGuire’s is a great place to start or end any evening and is just as popular as it has ever been even, even after over 40 years of being in business.

Butch McGuire’s can be easily spotted with its green-painted facade and two-storefront-wide awning, displaying the colors of the Irish flag surrounding the flag of Chicago, located at the base of a three-story building faced with terra cotta. The bar is located between the original Mother’s and She-nannigan’s House of Beer, and across the street from Coconutz, Finn McCool’s, and the Lodge. Push your way through the thick wooden door and you’ll want to have your ID out as the ever-present bouncers perched in the doorway card everyone. At least there isn’t a cover, but that is pretty standard along this highly competitive strip of bars. At this point of my bar review I normally describe the interior of the bar but in this case I’ve found it difficult to remember much about my experiences at Butch McGuire’s considering the epic state of drunkenness I usually am in either then or later. What I do remember is lots of wood, a room choked with bar tchotchkes and a heaving crowd of inebriates. Specifically, a long wooden bar runs the length of the eastern wall. Pull up a stool here and you can marvel at the impressive array of bar memorabilia that includes Tiffany style lamps, a double-decker model train that runs around the room, more Christmas decorations than you can shake a stick at every December (including a stuffed-animal mobile and the Grinch, which attracts families with children and fifty-somethings), and every St. Patty’s Day (animated Leprechauns dance around toadstools), and there is a collection of beer steins all of which is in the same tradition as Hangge Uppe’s, Green Door Tavern and Burwood Tap.

“Christmas at Butch McGuire’s is also a Chicago tradition. Ever since the tavern opened in 1961, Butch has found Christmas and alcohol an intoxicating elixir. ‘We had an Italian maintenance man working for us,’ Butch recalls. ‘He brought in some balloons. Did his own decorations. It looked so nice . . . . That’s how it got started.’ Now it takes eight people working 14 days to assemble the decorations. Much has been acquired from department store closeout sales, but many of the costumes and toys are handmade by Tom Sheu, a fireman, part-time woodcarver and former McGuire’s employee.”

– excerpt from Butch McGuire’s Dazzles for the Holidays by June Sawyers in the Chicago Tribune (December 4, 1987)

As far as the drinks go, Butch McGuire’s is allegedly where the Harvey Wallbanger and the “Skip and go Naked” were invented and was the first instance of a Bloody Mary being served with a stalk of celery instead of a swizzle stick – although others claim the latter originally happened at the nearby Pump Room when a customer grabbed the first thing he could find when his Bloody Mary was served to him without something to stir it. The bar at Butch McGuire’s was also the spot where I witnessed a loaded chick from LA go bananas after the Lakers beat the Kings in Game 3 of the 2002 Western Conference Finals. My date almost punched her in the face for the annoyance, perhaps in part because her Margarita was served to her in a glass stein leaving her a little on edge. Although rarely vacant, there’s additional seating at the south end of the bar and in front of windows adorned with lights that open out onto Division – the first of its kind, according to McGuire’s. You’ll find a cigarette machine and jukebox across from the bar (which is interestingly highlighted in a Guess Who “Whooligan” fan club visit), below several framed paintings and a large plastic football in Fall. The narrow space between the bar and the western wall is usually mobbed, so either head to the back or the second room for more space.

While often confused as an Irish pub or a sports bar, Butch McGuire’s can only really be classified as a meet/meat market (with kitchy Irish overtones), and this was the original intent of Butch McGuire himself. However, there are nine televisions around the bar for those of short attention span and the joint also has a more relaxed, pub-like “antique room” next to the bar. Just step through the fancy wood and glass doors to enter the antique room and pull up a stool at one of the bar-height cocktail tables that are claimed to have been invented by the prolific Mr. McGuire. This room has warmth with its combination of exposed brick and wood paneled walls, nautical theme and is thus very conducive to conversation. If the banter fades, you can while away the time by gazing at classical paintings of nudes and sailing ships ala John Barleycorn, and marveling at the giant wooden wheel, wooden statue of an 1800s-era rugby player, and the case of ornate glassware. Butch McGuire used to use this room, once a storage space, to sell antiques with his long-time friend, L. Zachary More, but seems to have abandoned that bit of enterprise some time later. You can reserve this room if you are interested in having a private party. Back at the north end of the main barroom, a back room provides additional entertainment by way of two regulation dartboards, as well as more seating at the large cocktail table nestled into the northeast corner of the room and at the unattended bar just to the left of the entrance.

“Tables are a miscellany—a door that came from the Ford mansion in Mexico City, with barrels as pedestals…”

– excerpt from “Food with a Flair Blends with Antiques” by Kay Loring in the Chicago Tribune (January 22, 1971)

Feeling a bit peckish? You’ve come to the right place. Butch McGuire’s serves a full menu for lunch, dinner and brunch on the weekends. The lunch and dinner menu features the standard selections of appetizers (weighted heavily towards the south-of-the-border variety), “Soups & Salads of Green,” their infamous chili, “Sandwiches-Go-Bragh” (including a hotdog for $3.50, an “Old Thyme Fried Egg” and peanut butter & jelly for $3), and burgers “from the Blarney Stone Grill.” I’m not sure how good they are but Butch McGuire’s also serves BBQ ribs for $13 every day. All of the above is served by girls in miniskirts, whose service varies as much as their hemlines. The brunch menu is highlighted by the “Build your O’Omelet” and other “Top of the Mornings” to ya like eggs served Benedict, Ranchero, Florentine, McGuire (topped with melted Swiss and served with a ham steak), or any way you like ’em. In addition, Richard Saul Wurman annually proclaims in the Chicago Access Guide that Butch McGuire’s serves the best Bloody Marys in town. Brunch is served on Saturdays and Sundays until the un-brunch-like hour of 4pm.

The kitchen itself is open until 10pm every day, at which point hordes of tourists, conventioneers, and suburbanites that realize that there’s more to Chicago than Navy Pier descend upon Butch McGuire’s to try their luck in the legendary pick up scene. The place has universal appeal to all ages because that’s what you find there, dressed in anything from t-shirts and sneakers to suits and cocktail dresses. Lines form down the block around Christmas and St. Patrick’s Day. Butch McGuire’s closes at 4am during the week and 5am on Saturdays, making it one of your better late night options along with the Underground Wonder Bar, the Olde Town Ale House or the Redhead Piano Bar a little further south –– that is, if you decide not to heed my Nothing Good Ever Happens after 2am personal philosophy on drinking. If you don’t head out afterwards, pick yourself up a Butch McGuire’s shot glass or ashtray, or peruse the usual array of merchandise that includes t-shirts, sweatshirts, fleeces, and hats.

Back when the bar’s telephone number was referred to as “DE 7-9080,” Jory Graham described Butch McGuire’s in her book, Chicago, an Extraordinary Guide (1967), in this way: “Sole entertainment is a juke box hypoed for maximum sound. No dancing, no food except weekend afternoons from about 2:30 on. Then a nickel buys a hot dog on a bun or a bowl of well-seasoned chili. One thing about Butch’s, there’s always a bevy of good-looking girls around – stenos, stewardesses and young teachers, whose background include the word lady.” A nickel! Around these times, even Hugh Hefner of Playboy Magazine and the Chicago Playboy Club would swing by in his limousine, as would John Wayne would stop by when in town, who liked to repay the kindness of those buying him a drink with a hearty, “Now fuck off!”

The building housing Butch McGuire’s allegedly operated as a speakeasy called Kelly’s Pleasure Palace during Prohibition along with tunnels that run under the building and under the street, presumably used for various illicit activities. In the 1950s, the space was owned by a Chicago mobster and run as a strip club known as “Bobby Farrell’s Sho Lounge,” a “busted-out Division Street speakeasy, a place full of hookers, pimps and gamblers,” according to the Chicago Sun Times. The girls back then used to dance behind the bar where it bows out in the middle and a house of ill-repute was said to operate upstairs. Butch McGuire purchased the bar in 1961 and rapidly transformed the space into the “mother of all singles bars.” This all began when Butch McGuire became the first reputable bar owner to allow un-escorted women, which was unusual for the time. McGuire even rehabbed the women’s “powder room” to make it one of the cleanest in the city (spending $12,000), allowed only women to sit at the bar when crowded (gentlemen would give up their seat or be thrown out), and Butch McGuire’s was one of the first to hire a female bartender. He would even have a driver pick up women in the area who called in for a ride. As such, the bar claims to be responsible for over 6,500 marriages. If that’s true, imagine how many people dodged the bullet of getting hitched but still got laid… The ownership of McGuire’s also proudly proclaims, “Hundreds of men and women have paid for all or part of their educations by working at Butch’s!” At least you can feel a little better about that one. The reason for this is that Butch himself only hired students and wanted to avoid hiring, “old pros pushing for tips.”

With the help of David Richardson, Butch McGuire wrote a book about his experience of running his place in a book called Meet Me at Butch McGuire’s: Stories and Lessons from the Street of Dreams (2003). The friendly, talkative McGuire, described as having lived, “a life so full that it has required two hearts so far,” puts many of his stories down on paper, which are divided into four sections: (1) The origins and first decade of the saloon; (2) The Seventies and the challenges of success; (3) The Eighties and the consequences of excess; (4) The Nineties and Butch’s renewed focus on the heart of it all. The unofficial “Mayor of Division Street,” Robert “Butch McGuire” passed away in 2006, eleven years after receiving a heart transplant and at the age of 76, and the bar is now owned by his son, Bobby.

“Mother of all singles bars.”

The Official Chicago Bar Guide (1994)

Through the years, the anchor of Division Street known as Butch McGuire’s has evolved from the first singles bar, to an upscale hangout, back to enormously popular meat market, and ultimately into the elder statesman of Rush and Division madness that it is today. There’s not much Irish about it aside from the name, but that doesn’t keep it from standing out as one of the best in an area where there’s no shortage of places to wet your whistle. Some would describe the place as a “party hole” but I think the place is one of the best in the Gold Coast and I’m always sure to stop in whenever I’m in the neighborhood (just before getting dragged to the Lodge and/or Hangge Uppe). I can also appreciate that it is independently owned one of the few bars not owned by the Lodge Management Group or Ala Carte Entertainment, even though they did branch out into the suburbs on Rand Road in the 1970s. For more information and to listen to a never-ending Irish jig, check out the Butch McGuire’s website. Thanks for everything, Butch.

“I live in London but in 1985 I worked in Chicago for Cargill. I was there for the Superbowl winning Bears, Ryne Sandberg and the Cubs and for The Boss at Soldier Field. I worked on the CBOT and the CME during what was 6 of the best months of my life. We went out on Rush and Division and went to Butch McGuire’s man times hence ‘About Last Night’ and ‘St. Elmo’s Fire’ mean so much when I see them. I’m now 43 but that time on La Salle was great fun for a 23 year old from England.”

– Cheeky (July 5, 2005)

“His decorations for each holiday are legendary. Being so close to Cabrini Green, many of the shoe-shine children (with their boxes) would try to get business from the entering patrons. Butch made a deal with these urchins and he would then feed them. (An African American fellow named Herk (sp) was his cook — he’s the one who started the Chili with all the fixings to put on top.) The tables which you refer in the main bar were actually doors some flipped up from the walls and the others carried out — all of which had plexiglass to protect the uneven carved surfaces. The expansion of the back room, with the plaster shamrock cove ceiling was done by Irish artisans brought over from Ireland by Butch. Prior to that room there were games such as [shufflepuck] bowling. There were also divided dart games to entertain those who thought they could see the dart boards in that cursory back-room. Our children sat in their carriers or car seats on the bar or the game tables provided. Butch adored children, especially well behaved ones.”

– P.K.M. (August 12, 2008)

Photo courtesy of Len Cleavelin

Rest in peace, Butch McGuire and Alderman political career