Durkin’s, formerly an old man’s bar and a speakeasy before that, was remodeled under the same ownership that brought you McGee’s, Wrightwood Tap, Redmond’s, and Duffy’s. Today, Durkin’s joins bars like Vaughan’s Pub that bill themselves as friendly neighborhood Irish pubs that are instead rowdy post-college joints with weak service and $10 burgers – proving once again that it takes more than sticking shamrocks on the façade to create an Irish pub experience. Unfortunately, Durkin’s doesn’t have anything in particular that stands out to compensate for this except for the strange fascination some patrons have with hanging out in the alley.
Out with the old…
…and in with the new
Since 1933, Durkin’s has held the oldest continuous beer license on the North Side of Chicago and it’s incredible that the place has lasted even half that long. Durkin’s used to be the bar where drunks would fall out the door at one in the afternoon, as they probably started drinking at breakfast. It was dark and dingy with yellowed stucco walls, dirty white tile floor, smudged tin ceiling, worn bar, and badly cut wooden siding. While the place was a dive, it was a good place to grab a burger, have a quiet pint, and chat with the bartender. Durkin’s history before that is best summed up in Dennis McCarthy’s The Great Chicago Bar & Saloon Guide (1985): “Before 1918, Durkin’s was a restaurant, and from 1918 to 1933 it was Prohibition Willy’s Speakeasy. In 1933 Margaret Durkin became the proprietress, and she ran the place until 1974. When the present owners were remodeling in 1974, they stumbled on a secret room in the basement full of White Horse Scotch and Portuguese brandy, without government seals of course, and in pre-twist top bottles. In front there was a soda parlor, in the rear (where there’s, to this day, a large back room covering 800 square feet), was Willie’s Speakeasy.”
Since the new owners have taken over for the former proprietor, Jerry Olson of, “no matter where you go, there you are” fame, Durkin’s has been cleaned up and aired out with new French windows in front to make the place a lot sunnier. They have also mounted a bronze statue of an old man sitting on a barrel (same as the logo) that could be Durkin himself, at the end of the front bar. Durkin’s does serve food, but it falls far short of cousin-bars Duffy’s and Redmond’s with its limited menu of standard fare pub grub that will cost you more than it used to under the previous ownership. However, there are a few intriguing selection falling under the “Horse Shoes” category, referencing both the horseshoe pit that they used to have in the alley and that each sandwich is served on Texas Toast: “The Cow” is 1/2 pound burger, “The Pig” is a 1/2 pound of thinly sliced ham and “The Gobbler” is, you guessed it, a 1/2 pound of thinly sliced turkey – of which all of the above is “covered in fries, smothered in cheese,” and prepared by neighboring Select Cut Steakhouse.
Elsewhere in the front room are paintings of nature scenes and several Illini flags, as Durkin’s is now an Illinois bar (formerly a Purdue bar, until they jumped on the Illini bandwagon just as a dozen other bars in Lakeview have recently). For all its other faults, Durkin’s is a great place for games as all 37 televisions are dedicated to showing each game, and they don’t support ten other college teams like Joe’s. “Go Ugly Early” is in effect on game days as doors open at 8:00am and it’s all you can eat and drink until 11:00am Durkin’s also shows all Steelers games with pretty much the same scene as Illini games, only with different colored jerseys in the house. Durkin’s shows whatever local sports are going on, but don’t expect to hear them with the ever-thumping music going as the sun goes down. Durkin’s also sports the obligatory Golden Tee as well as free popcorn.
In addition to the bad music that is played way too loud, the crowd is also an unwelcome addition to the “new” Durkin’s. Patrons mainly consist of loud, condo dwellers that like to drink heavily after work. Durkin’s new ownership is reticent to open the back room and so the front room gets pretty crowded. However, when they do, there is a spacious back room and when it’s really busy, the thick wooden doors at the end of the back room revealing a back, back room. Both back rooms have a bar, while the back back room has a rocking horse / bucking bronco setup in the corner and a doorway leading to where patrons can hang out in the alley (right next to the dumpsters). It was here that I met an Irishman born with no hair and sporting a Ted Coppell-like wig. Poor lad. As the sign says out front, Durkin’s used to have “horseshoes available” but no sign can be found of them these days—head up to the Montrose Saloon instead if you’re up for some shoein’.
With all of the bad music and yelling, it is impossible to hold a conversation without screaming yourself. Although, if a waitress from McGee’s wearing a cowboy hat fondles your breast and puts a mustard bottle down her panties like one did to me, that entertainment can make up for any lack of conversation difficulties. Now you can see why Durkin’s falls short of being a friendly neighborhood bar. If the atmosphere at Durkin’s starts to get on your tits, head ’round the corner to Harrigan’s – a neighborhood joint that is friendly, without with geezers. On occasions when the back room is open, and not hosting private parties, the back room offers another bar, more seating, an old phone booth, and two regulation dartboards. Live music can also be heard here on Thursdays and Fridays.
Durkin’s is located in the busy bar district around Diversey and Halsted that includes aliveOne, Hidden Shamrock and Trinity to the south, and Union and Parrot’s to the north (sounds like a pub crawl in the making…). I would recommend it as part of a pub crawl, but if you want a cool neighborhood hangout, check out Matilda, O’Donovan’s or Jake’s Pub. For more information, check out the Durkin’s website. Chug!