Justin’s is a great bar that helped blaze the way for change in Chicago bars. Back in 1984, Justin’s was one of the first bars to offer an excellent selection of microbrews, plenty of televisions, good burgers and pub grub, and a relaxing beer garden – all within the setting of a classically designed Chicago bar. All of these things attracted younger bar-goers and gave them an alternative to night clubs, cheesy Irish pubs and neighborhood bars filled with aging alcoholics. As a result, Justin’s is a great example of what I consider to be the “postmodern Chicago neighborhood bar,” defined as a place that has evolved from the previous generation of neighborhood bars, often driven by new ownership, renovation and which attracts a younger crowd with more than just Old Style on tap, one tiny black & white TV at the end of the bar, and a selection of food that includes deviled eggs, beef jerky and beer nuts. While some people pine for these bars, most were often absolute dives. Some good ones still exist like Resi’s Bierstube, Friar Tuck and Rose’s (on Lincoln), but many have been replaced by much better bars like Justin’s. In fact, many of Chicago’s best bars today have followed Justin’s example, including Sheffield’s, Guthries Tavern and O’Donovan’s. As a result of the trend it helped begin, Justin’s is much less differentiated than it was 25 years ago. Combine that with a relaxed atmosphere, though somewhat more of a meat market on weekends, and Justin’s is great place along the Southport Corridor.
Located at the corner of Southport and Roscoe, Justin’s anchors an eight-block happenin’ strip of restaurants and bars that stretches from Toons and Deleece to the north at Irving Park Road, to the FlatTop Grill and Schuba’s to the south at Belmont Avenue. Justin’s takes up two storefronts at the base of a nicely kept classic Chicago three-story corner brownstone. To get there, take the Brown Line to the Southport El stop or take a cab, as it can be tricky to find parking close by (especially on Cubs game days when it is permit-only parking on all but Southport Avenue). Justin’s can be spotted by its wooden signs depicting a tuxedo-clad dog; I’m not sure what the connection is with the dog but I do know that the bar was named after the owner (go figure). Have your ID ready as you’ll be carded before you even enter as the bouncers usually can be found hanging out on the front stoop. Step inside Justin’s and you’ll find a long wooden bar on your left with an impressive array of taps and tap handles, all under a canoe (with a hand hanging out of it – reminiscent of Slow Down! Life’s Too Short), basketball and hockey jerseys, a bicycle and a green-painted tin ceiling. The bar wraps around an opening midway down the front room where the Justin’s street sign stands, into the back room. This area is filled with more cocktail tables, additional seating at a window that offers great people-watching view of Southport Avenue, and an electronic dartboard that hangs below a stuffed deer head and a huge paper maché head that looms in the corner.
A white hexagonal tile floor separates the bar from a row of cocktail tables with table-side jukeboxes that no longer work but contain baseball, football, basketball, and hockey cards instead of music. A soft glow from old-fashioned lights hanging on the wall gives just enough light to adequately scope out the crowd and those coming in, and the “Wildcat Country” sign and horseshoe above the door on the way out. Twelve televisions located all around the room and 13 satellite feeds ensure that patrons can watch at least three TVs from anywhere in the room, especially during football season and March Madness. Unfortunately, Justin’s chooses to air Lakers games (and Chiefs games), so you may have to put up with some annoying Los Angeles types. If that’s not enough for you, further amusements are available in the back of the front room, including a photo booth, internet jukebox, Golden Tee, and electronic bags.
Hungry? Check out the menu at Justin’s as they have a very good kitchen. Menu items include a refreshing, non-fried array of items that includes portabello sandwiches, barbecue beef sandwiches, vegetable burritos, chili, and burgers. Justin’s specials menu often has a few surprises, such as quail quesadillas, quiche lorraine, corned beef and cabbage on St. Patrick’s Day, and champagne brunch on Sundays.
Just beyond the restrooms is a glass door that leads to a comfortable, yet often crowded, brick-paved warm-weather oasis that rivals that of nearby Taberna Tapatia and Village Tap. One can sit at one of dozens of wooden tables and white plastic chairs, under a large mulberry tree that stands in the middle. Two old-fashioned street lights supplement the moonlight, one of which is allegedly from the 1933 Chicago’s World Fair and the other is a replica of the one that was stolen recently. A chain link fence with a line of shrubs separates the garden from the sidewalk and muffles the din somewhat (though you can still hear the crowd halfway down the block on Roscoe). Waitresses take care of both food and drink orders, as does a wooden shed bedecked with golf clubs and skis that serves as the back bar. While the beer garden attracts a heaving throng on summer weekends, a prohibition on glass and unsupervised children and the herding inside of the masses at midnight minimizes problems for the surrounding neighborhood and the staff. In 1998, Justin’s added two party rooms on the second floor with fully restored hardwood floors, large windows overlooking Southport, and a rear outdoor deck that overlooks the beer garden below.
The Puke Button
The beer garden at Justin’s stands out in my mind because of an incident that occurred during the summer of 2001. I had just started working for a company in Lincolnwood when we all took the afternoon off to see a Cubs game at Wrigley Field. There we watched Kerry Wood strike out an impressive number of opponents while we consumed an equally impressive amount of alcohol. That was even before our South-Sider manufacturing manager purchased an entire case of beer at last call (for a shocking amount of money). At that point, we were all double-fisting and, I am proud to say, we finished off the case by the end of the game. Once the Cubbies had pulled off their triumphant win, we decided to head over to the original location of Hi-Tops. On the way, one of our internal sales reps jumped on the back of her bald-headed, red-goateed, ex-Marine boyfriend for a piggyback ride and, in the process, revealed an interesting tattoo on her lower back along with the crack of her ass. Upon seeing this, our distribution account rep (another South-Sider) stuck a flier down her panties shielding our innocent eyes from the sight. The tattooed lass jumped over her boyfriend’s back and squealed like a stuck pig. The beautiful part was that she couldn’t figure out who had done the deed. We got to Hi-Tops but turned straight around as none of us wanted to be gouged by the $5 cover charge. Instead, we started making our way to Justin’s. By the time we came to Cubby Bear, the tattooed girl had to pee. While doing so, her boyfriend joined a group of drunk lasses dancing rather provocatively in the window. When she came out and saw this, he ran out of the Cubby Bear and found himself firmly placed in the doghouse. They argued and we walked on. By the time we hit the alley just before D’Agostino’s, several members of our party could not hold it any longer. Being guys, they proceeded to hose down the alley with filtered Old Style.
We finally reached Justin’s, located just beyond the Wrigley Field one-mile pee radius and were able to acquire a table in the beer garden that could hold all of us. We ordered beers, placed our orders and waited for our food. In the meantime, our national sales manager bet our tattooed account rep that she couldn’t keep quite for more than seven minutes. She claimed she could and the bet was on. In trying to get her to lose the bet, the ex-Marine boyfriend started describing their sex life in detail. We found out things that still disturb us today. Once the seven minutes were up, she won the bet and began giving her boyfriend an earbashing. He wouldn’t have any of it so she karate chopped him in the throat. As an immediate reaction to the chop, her boyfriend threw up at the table – right as the food was being served. Our southeast regional sales manager, having not eaten all day, shielded the sight and the smell as best he could with his menu while he tried to stomach his food. The couple left soon after, and she claimed the next day that she had merely “poked” him in the throat, and that she didn’t realize that this would result in a Technicolor yawn. This prompted us to refer to the area at which he was poked as the “puke button.” Lesson learned: do not press the puke button on someone who is exceedingly drunk. This may occur naturally to most people but, if it doesn’t, heed this warning!
In 1994, The Official Chicago Bar Guide observed that, “an indifferent staff precludes perfection” at Justin’s. The staff is friendlier these days as competition has intensified all up and down Southport, giving it more of a neighborhood feel like Toons. As such, along a street where cramped sidewalk cafés are de rigueur, Justin’s offers the best beer garden around. If that weren’t enough for you, Justin’s follows In the same vein as other popular movie bars like Green Mill and Emmit’s Pub, by being the bar where scenes from Heaven is a Playground (1991) and The Babe (1992) were filmed. For more information, check out the Justin’s website. Cheers.