Editor’s note: after long being vacant, following numerous rounds of city violations, cease and desist orders and red tape, Kerouac Jack’s was finally transformed into Cabo Bar & Grill. The Mexican-themed taberna had a pretty rough time until JT Collins closed across the street. Cabo has recently given way to Waterhouse, which begs the question how long will the newcomer last in this accursed locale?
“Beatnick restaurant and bongo bar”
Just off of the six-corner intersection of Lincoln, Roscoe and Paulina, lies a curious relic of Chicago’s drinking past – Kerouac Jack’s Restaurant & Lounge. Kerouac Jack’s was an attempt to recreate the feeling of the late 50’s and early 60’s Beat Generation in the form of a drinking establishment. The bar was stylishly decorated with vintage furnishings, the kitchen served a somewhat intriguing selection of food, and poetry could sometimes be heard. While it was one of the most unique places in Chicago, Kerouac Jack’s went the way of beatniks and Jack Kerouac himself – into the great beyond.
Kerouac Jack’s was rather easy to find with its large bongos hanging above the door, above a white and maroon-painted facade and floor-to-ceiling windows that used to open out in warm weather. Its location reminds me of the old Chicago riddle: what three streets in Chicago rhyme with vagina? Scroll all the way down for the answer. The only difference between then and now is that the windows have been papered over, with a sign claiming: “Re-opening soon under new management.” “Sorry we missed you. Please call again,” reads the sign on the door that has been there for at least a year and a half. Sometime between September 2000 through February 2001, Richard M. Daley and his bar-busting brigade shut down Kerouac Jack’s for “police complaints and license violations.” Other notable venues in the area that were shut for the same reasons include: Big Daddie’s, River West, and the “O” Bar & Café. None have returned.
“A beatnick bar for people who go to Epcot Center to see France; it’s not that horrific, but you get the idea. It is stylish, and the real Jack would be most uncomfortable. Huge bongo drums out front,” was how Kerouac Jack’s was described in its hey-dey by The Official Chicago Bar Guide in 1994. Upon entering Kerouac Jack’s one would notice a long room with a 30-foot walnut wrap-around bar on the left, a restaurant-like seating area with low-rider tables and a small stage in the back, and more funky bric-a-brac than this sentence has hyphens. To add to the hipster feel, intriguing works of local art adorned the walls and table tents along the bar included a partial beatnick dictionary. Behind the bar was a good selection of beers with 28 in bottles and more on tap including “Bongo Beer” brewed by Leinenkugel. If you felt a little peckish, one could dine on a somewhat pricey, eclectic variety of “beatnik dishes” consisting of seafood satay, tapas, and slight variations of mainstream Italian fare. Sunday brunch was also available from 10:30 a.m. to 2:00 p.m., and additional seating could be found in their smallish sidewalk café in summer where you could take in the pleasant sounds of the Brown Line El stopping at the Pualina station and the traffic along Lincoln Avenue. Additional entertainment could be had during open-mic poetry readings hosted by Jeff Carpenter ($3 donation), occasional live music, and Jack Kerouac readings piped-in over a loudspeaker in the bathrooms. There was also a “Party Pad” upstairs with old sofas, psychedelic lighting, a quarter-a-game pool table, and old-fashioned baseball and bowling games. What more could you want, daddio?
Perhaps something more. I once walked in with a large group of people shortly before it closed, and found Kerouac Jack’s as empty as the blank looks on the bartender and waiter’s faces. We turned round and left and I never came back. It seemed like a great idea for a bar that somehow was not well executed. Whatever the case, the bar started taking shortcuts and ultimately lost their liquor license over it. If it does re-open, I certainly do hope it’s under not only new management but new ownership as well, as I don’t think revoked liquor licenses should be taken lightly. If it does return, maybe Kerouac Jack’s can realize its potential, especially as the area is becoming a much more popular strip by the day, thanks to other such notable places as Waterhouse, Tavern 33, Fizz, and Finley Dunne’s. Otherwise, hit the road Jack.
“I hope it is true that a man can die and yet not only live in others but give them life, and not only life but that great consciousness of life.”– Jack Kerouac
Prior to its existence as Kerouac Jack’s, not much is remembered about the space. All I could find on a Google search was that a place called, “Ye Old Mill Lounge,” which opened in January 1976, and “installed a regular show by the Playgirls, who were Pearl Diamond and Laura Merrill, with guest artists every week. On July 2 and 3, 1976, one of the guests was Tillie (The Dirty Old Lady),” according to Sukie de la Croix in Windy City Times (July 30, 2003).