“You’re a Stranger here but once”
Photo courtesy of Matt Anderson Kelly’s Pub is as much a DePaul University (and Maguire University) institution as Blue Demons basketball and Coach Ray Meyer, the former Demon Dogs on Fullerton, and the American flag that hangs over the door. Mostly of-age students and other neighborhood denizens looking for some pub grub and cheap drinks flock to this watering hole in Sheffield Neighbors, nestled under the El. Though not really an Irish pub in the same sense as a Cullen’s, Chief O’Neill’sor Johnny O’Hagan’s, Kelly’s is a classic Chicago-Irish pub. Since 1933, the Kelly family has run this legendary tavern and the weathered feel of this time-worn gem suggests that the proof is in the pudding.
Having opened the day after Prohibition ended, like the Berghoff, Coq d’Or and nearby Burwood Tap, Kelly’s Pub is the oldest continuously run, family-owned tavern on Chicago’s North Side. The joint was originally named “El-Side Tavern” until being renamed “Kelly’s Pub” in 1935. The establishment was a candy shop during Prohibition and the glass and wood cabinetry from that era is still used behind the bar, only now to showcase Kelly’s Pub merchandise: Such goodies include t-shirts ($15), sweatshirts ($30), hats ($15), and posters of Richard J. Daley’s last St. Patrick’s Day march ($20 – also found on the wall). Like Glascott’s down the street, the façade of Kelly’s was once more foreboding with tiny windows that didn’t let in much light. Larger windows in place earlier were regularly broken as this neighborhood was one of the worst on the North Side from the 1950s through the 1970s, until DePaul University began to expand and Mayor Richard M. Daley started his “Park West” neighborhood rejuvenation efforts. Old photos of Kelly’s from these eras can be found across from the bar, near to a good photo of the ecstasy—and ultimate agony—of DePaul’s failed championship run through the NCAA tournament in 1979 (patrons photographed at the bar), when coached by the beloved Ray Meyer who regularly stopped by Kelly’s Pub. Doug Bruno, now coach of the women’s team, now carries the torch in this same regard.
Kelly’s Pub is located on Webster Avenue, just east of Sheffield and across from McGee’s. A wooden sign with a stein of beer, and head consisting of overflowing golden shamrocks, hangs above a bright green-painted wooden façade with plate glass windows that stretch from floor to ceiling. If you use the El regularly between the Fullerton and Armitage stops, you may have noticed the Kelly’s Pub mural painted on the east wall of the three-story, red-brick building housing it. The finest Astroturf covers the entryway to Kelly’s, as well as the 20-person capacity beer garden surrounded by short red-brick walls and which is located directly under the El. There’s nothing like enjoying a pitcher of MGD as the El thunders by overhead, just as Rob Lowe and Demi Moore did in a scene from About Last Night (1986), a film based on David Mamet’s Sexual Perversity in Chicago. In fact, the beer garden was constructed just for the movie but continues to draw patrons, many of whom simply head inside with ringing ears after the first few trains roll by. Kelly’s Pub has also been featured in several television shows and, most recently, a PBS documentary entitled, “Remembering Chicago Again.” Not bad for a corner saloon in a town full of ’em.
Dark orange and red linoleum covers the floor as you walk in through the old wooden door. Bouncers make an appearance to card patrons, particularly the earlier it is in the DePaul school year. Make your way past a half dozen, low-slung tables towards the shellacqued wooden bar and pull up a high-backed stool. A mirror behind the bar is slightly reminiscent of the setting sun – the sun being a 70s era cash register. A plethora of flatpanel televisions entertain patrons throughout the bar with DePaul Blue Demons men’s basketball, Cubs baseball (Kelly’s is located one mile south of Wrigley Field), Bulls basketball, Bears football games, or whatever happens to be on ESPN. In days of yore, Kelly’s only had two televisions, but installed a series of flatpanels to provide adequate coverage of the Cubs’ disastrous 2003 post-season run. Beer flows freely from 13 taps, including one for the dreaded Jägermeister), and a few others are available in bottles. Of particular note, is that every “Blursday” (Thursday) features 22-ounce “bombers” for $2.50. Friday mornings will never be the same…
“It’s a nice neighborhood tavern which has two or three different crowds per day. There’s the 7 A.M. till afternoon hard core, the dinner hour working people, and the night time DePaul student young folk. Bears and Notre Dame football games also play an important part in the bar life here. It’s a hard drinking, ‘neighborhood survivors’ tavern.”– excerpt from The Great Chicago Bar & Saloon Guide by Dennis McCarthy (1985)
It was here at the bar at Kelly’s that a friend of mine and I encountered a woman pouring salt into her beer, as classic rock poured out of the jukebox. Being completely oblivious to this practice, my friend and I inquired as to the rationale of such a seemingly odd practice. We learned that she did this to maintain the head on her favorite domestic. Intrigued by this phenomenon, my friend tried it but overdid it just a tad as evidenced by the head that was three fingers thick, which stank as bad as it tasted. The smell in question actually complimented the natural aroma of the bar, built up from 70 years of cigarette smoke, college kids in unwashed clothing and grease from a small kitchen that pumps out a limited menu of pizza, hamburgers, corned beef (all for around $8), and 10¢ wings on Wednesdays. An old Italian woman once ran the cocina and, following your order, she would size you up and give you a portion based on your stature. If she didn’t like the looks of you, you might not get anything at all. Those that she took a shine to were served some of the best lasagna around.
“Pure Chicago”– Official Chicago Bar Guide (1994)
Elsewhere around the room, you’ll find photos of the DePaul men’s basketball team and Kelly’s personalities hanging from green-painted walls, along with glowing green lights on pillars, a Golden Tee, a Ms. Pacman, and electronic darts next to the one-seater bathrooms. A wooden door past the john leads to another beer garden in back. This was the location of the worst bachelor party I ever attended. Normally, I’m not into sleazy strippers, so de rigeur these days, but I would have welcomed them with open arms rather than put up with mindless banter around a keg of Bud Light under a chilly, canopied beer garden in October. But then, what should I have expected from a bachelor party, South Side-style? (Alright, South Siders, let the flaming begin – my e-mail address can be found below).
The roar of the El, never far from rudely interrupting an insipid pick-up line at Kelly’s, reminds me of when I lived on Sheffield, less than half a block from Webster. From the rear apartment, you could almost reach out and touch the tracks. Fortunately, I lived in a friend’s apartment located in the front, as a favor following a personal debacle involving the country of Wales. In this apartment, it took me a full week to sleep through the whole night as the entire building would shake each time Chicago’s pride and joy rolled by – particularly during the morning rush when you could have up to four trains going by at once: a combination of the Red, Brown and Purple lines running both north and south. I often couldn’t hear the TV, someone on the other end of the phone or even myself think (which was probably for the best, back in those days).
“This is the last of the neighborhood’s old-fashioned taverns–dim, loaded with wood, and full of crazed spectators during TV broadcasts of DePaul University basketball games”– Richard Saul Wurman, Access Chicago (Fifth Edition, 1999)
On the wall across from the south end of the bar is a display, of sorts, of Maguire University, including a “Hall of Fame” plaque and a pennant. You may know DePaul, but have you ever heard of “Maguire U” with mascot, “The Jollymen,” and motto, “We play hurt”? Long story short, it was a fake university incorporated in order to get free tickets to the Final Four. Perhaps it was ESPN that described the inauspicious beginnings of Maguire University best:
“This particular brand of March Madness started at Maguire’s, a bar favored by local high school and college coaches in the Chicago suburb of Forest Park back in the early ’60s. It started out as a simple prank: Hey, we ought to call ourselves a University and try to finagle our way into Final Four tickets. And it snowballed from there. Eventually, the Maguire ‘administration created bogus North and South Campuses. Hired fictitious coaches. Even recruited made-up players. The hoax managed to hoodwink just about everyone at the NCAA — to the point that it was allotting Final Four tickets and guaranteeing hotel rooms to Maguire University ‘students’ and ‘alumni’ each year. Until 1974, Maguire University annually sent a happy, if slightly sauced, contingent to the Final Four. On paper, they were a small university in the Independent Conference that played its games in ‘Lawless Fieldhouse.’ Maguire University sent out its scores over wire services. Nominated All-America candidates. Applied to have its band perform in parades around the country. John Maguire, the bar’s owner, was listed as the sports information director. Mel Connolly, university president, was a truck driver. A policeman named Sal, a bar regular with an unknown last name, was listed as football coach Sal De Copper. Eventually, the school got itself listed in the 1972 NCAA directory, the Blue Book. You can’t get any more official than that. Maguire University had come of age. Coaches from other schools occasionally called to try to schedule games. They were told that the best time to reach Maguire’s coaching staff was after 11 on Friday and Saturday nights. “They wondered what kind of program we were running,” Duffy laughs. “We listed our win-loss record at 15-10 to try to stay under the radar.” Sadly, a Sports Illustrated article blew Maguire’s cover in 1974, and the NCAA printed a retraction in the directory. More importantly, Maguire University became University Non Grata at the Final Four. Its block of tickets (around 100) was rescinded. So were the hotel rooms.”– excerpt from “The University You’ve Never Heard” by Alysee Minkoff (April 4, 2005)
Once Maguire U and The Jollymen were found out, the university regrouped at Kelly’s Pub, which has been the administration and recruitment center ever since, particularly for their “Final Five” attendance at the Final Four, a tradition that has continued every year since 1963. For more information, check out the Maguire University website. Yes, Maguire U actually has a website.
The fictitious college, and Kelly’s Pub itself, is now run by publican extraordinaire, John Kelly, who took the reigns from his father. There are many stories about John, but one of my favorites is when Kelly once drank both Slash and Axel Rose of Guns ‘n Roses under the table. Back in their early days, both rockers lived in a building on Bissel owned by the tavern keeper. As Kelly’s Pub was a stone’s throw away, they often came in for beers. They might have been closer friends had Axel not started eying John’s daughter… Kelly was also featured in the movie About Last Night as a bartender, ran a “Mike Ditka for Mayor” campaign without the “candidate’s” knowledge, and John’s wife Polly Kelly helped found the Sheffield Garden Walk back in 1969. If you happen to see an older Irish-looking fellow with a beard, either brace yourself for a VO & soda or run for the hills.
While the sign looks new, the rest of the bar looks just about the same as when it opened, back when Prohibition ended. The resulting character of this rather intimate space gives the bar an elusive charm that has tremendous appeal to the tatty crowd that loves it. Kelly’s Pub, not to be confused by Kelly’s Pub in Huntley, IL, Kelly’s Tavern on the South Side or even Kelly’s Pub in Pointe-Claire, Quebec for that matter, is a Chicago landmark and is very popular not only during St. Patrick’s Day and the Sheffield Garden Walk (every July), but also most every other night of the week, especially for those fleeing the pounding music of McGee’s across the street. DePaul University is not only the largest Catholic university in the nation, but Notre Dame’s got nothing like John Kelly and Kelly’s Pub. For more information, check out the Kelly’s Pub website. Fighting Irish, eat your heart out!
“A sports-oriented singles atmosphere”