Somehow, Celtic Crossings had eluded me for years. How did this happen? Where did I go wrong? Why did I not listen to my friend Jenny who had a string of uninterrupted weekends spent at Celtic Crossings that lasted for as long as I knew her. Sadly, I know not, but I finally rectified my unexplained absence with a visit and was very glad I did so. Celtic Crossings has the feel of a cozy Irish country pub and stands as the antithesis of the commercialized fadó, located a bit further south. For over 12 years, Celtic Crossings has provided a welcoming neighborhood pub for an area that not only desperately needed it, but one that can only loosely be described as a neighborhood a’tall. You won’t find any food, televisions or Golden Tee at Celtic Crossings, but you’ll surely find a bit of craic and you may even bump into someone famous.
Celtic Crossings is located in River North, on the east side of Wells and just south of Chicago Avenue. The bar lies opposite the Clark Street Ale House and half a block north of Garrett Ripley’s. Once painted green, you can’t miss Celtic Crossings now with its bright red-painted façade with black-upon-tan lettering. Step through the double-doored entryway and you’ll immediately encounter a crackling fireplace in colder weather that is framed by two brass lanterns and which keeps the front seating area warm. Here, you can grab one of the low-slung tables under a wood-paneled ceiling and in front of smallish windows with checked curtains and neon beer signs that protect the somewhat murky interior and the regulars from the light, evil light, streaming in across Wells.
A long and battered dark wooden bar, with its death mask of James Joyce behind it, runs down most of the central portion of the south wall, terminating in a stained glass partition made of wood that separates the front room from the back. A rather large mirror at the east end of the bar makes this single room look even bigger. Beyond the partition, you’ll find more low-slung seating, a number of framed images of Ireland and its personalities, an unused fireplace, and the toilets. The décor at Celtic crossings is rounded out by a dizzying array of kickshaws from the old country that line a shelf near the ceiling running the length of the north wall, and a small display next to the fireplace hangs an official “James Joyce Irish Pub Award” awarded to Celtic Crossings, which makes the pub one of two bars in the entire country that I know of that have been granted this prestigious award – it is usually only awarded to a handful of pubs in Ireland deemed authentic by some anonymous committee that I can’t seem to find any information on…
If you can grab one of the high-backed wooden stools at the bar, that’s the place to be. Additional seating can be found across from the bar at a smattering of hi-top tables with stools and bench seating. Celtic Crossings features a baker’s dozen on tap, including the usual suspects Guinness and Harp, as well as Kinsale, Smithwick’s, Murphy’s, Bass, Carlsburg, and whatever cider happens to be popular that day. According to a bartender at Irish Oak, Celtic Crossings is one of the top three establishments in Chicago for where you can get the best Guinness in town (Irish Oak and fadó being the other two). You’ll also find a dozen Irish whiskeys on hand and you might even be able to snag a bag of chips if you’re lucky.
As for entertainment, SportsCenter fans will have to head elsewhere as Celtic Crossings attracts those that believe in the Art of Conversation, and even some that can hold up their end of one. The Crossings also features traditional Irish music on weekends, including the world-renowned flute playing of Larry Nugent when he’s in town. Celtic Crossings draws an after-work crowd during the week, a loyal following on weekends and a surprising number of Europeans, thanks to the bar’s write-up in Lonely Planet. When visitors come in looking for food, they are promptly directed to one of the local steakhouses for dinner, followed by entertainment at the Redhead Piano Bar – but they always wind up back at Celtic Crossings afterwards. Even a handful of celebrities have been known to frequent this modest pub, including Jude Law, Colm Meany, Gabriel Byrne, and George Wendt who lists Celtic Crossings as one of his top five favorites in Chicago, along with Abbey Pub, Schuba’s, Martyrs’ and Fitzgerald’s, according to the Chicago Tribune.
“James Joyce Pub Award”
“Celtic Crossings… was boisterous and happy, and I knew a few people there and met a few more, such as a carpenter named Simon, 35, whose wife is about to have a baby. We talked about babies and carpentry and Michael Caine. People came and went and conversation swirled, from newspapers to racehorses to playwright Brendan Behan. At some point somebody produced a guitar, and one of the bartenders played it while belting out ‘I Sang a Song of Ireland’ in a booming baritone that cut through the loud bar clatter.”– Excerpt from “Tragic case of a twisted mind,” by Neil Steinberg in the Chicago Sun-Times (December 11, 2006)
Celtic Crossings, though an Irish pub, is a classic Chicago bar in a similar manner as the Brehon Pub, located around the corner. Being long on atmosphere, short on the usual groggery annoyances and a far cry from the piano bar Joann’s that proceeded it, you can’t go wrong with a Guinness in your hand while listening to one of the three co-owners that do the bartending: John Phelan, John O’Reardon and Kevin Hibbitts, all of whom are Irish and well skilled with the blarney. For more information, check out the Celtic Crossings website. The craic was mighty that night, my friends. Mighty.