Before the popularity of Redmond’s, Matilda and Gannon’s Pub, places like MaxTavern epitomized the quintessential hangout for those looking for a good neighborhood corner bar that combined the funky with the laid-back, not to mention one of the best selections of microbrews in the area. Sadly, only its memory remains.
Though it was located at the corner of George and Racine, the bar was originally located in the middle of George Street but was moved, “at the turn of the century, in the grand Chicago tradition of rearranging architecture with hand tools,” according to The Great Chicago Bar & Saloon Guide (1985). MaxTavern was known for its eclectic selection of rock, African, Cuban, and Cajun music played by the bartender (part of a 100-album collection behind the bar), a complete lack of televisions, the photo booth in the back, tampons in the women’s bathroom, nice wooden booths, tin-plated walls and ceiling, and big front windows that overlooked Racine. The bar was also notable for its proliferation of globes hanging around the room, which complimented a collection of funky artwork that included a giant t-shirt that covered up an entire wall. The globes were actually a holdover from an establishment that preceded MaxTavern, known as the Orbit Room, which was a bar that wanted to be more of a coffeehouse. Fortunately, if you’re in the mood for globes these days, head over to the Map Room or Kasey’s Tavern, where the torch has unknowingly been passed. The globes at MaxTavern even provided the inspiration for the Shattered Globe Theatre, when one of the originators accidentally knocked into a globe that smashed into pieces when it fell on their table. MaxTavern was also known for, “On any night at any time there can be poetry reading or a fashion show,” according to Hanging Out on Halsted… and Chicago’s North Side (1993). When fashion shows were held, the models actually used the ancient mahogany bar as a runway. In addition to these curiosities, MaxTavern was one of the first Chicago bars that offered a wide menu of brewskies, which helped people escape the evil clutches of the Budweiser-Heineken-Miller-only drink selection commonly found elsewhere. The combination of traditional bar architecture with funky decor attracted a local crowd by day and trendy pubcrawlers by night that the Chicago Reader once described as “on the cutting edge of hip aspirations.”
Many attribute the overall success of MaxTavern to former owner Dennis McCarthy, who also authored The Great Chicago Bar & Saloon Guide but whom had a friend do the write-up on MaxTavern. McCarthy also purportedly made a mean “whole food,” non-alcoholic drink called the “Green Magma Maximizer,” which could help you wash down a variety of sandwiches and fruit plates.
“I was at Max Tavern the last day it was open, on a Sunday. Nobody, not even the staff, knew it was going to be closed. They went to go to work on Monday, and there was a padlock on the door and a note from the bank that it had been closed. I heard the building owners raised the rent to squeeze out the tavern, so they could raze the building and build condos. The bar owner refused to pay, so it was closed. Years later, the space is still empty, no condos.”– J.M. (March 26, 2003) (disclaimer: this story was filtered through a friend, so it may or may not be spot-on for accuracy)
Unfortunately, the MaxTavern shut its doors permanently in the mid-1990s, ending over a century’s use of the building as a neighborhood pub. This may have something to do with the bar being discovered and over-frequented by yuppies in the early-1990s. Today, in addition to the places named above, the spirit of MaxTavern can be found in places like the Gingerman, Fizz and the Lincoln Tap Room. Also known as “Mac’s Tavern,” “Max’s Tavern” and “Uno Mundo Institute of World Peace,” MaxTavern is perhaps best summed up in the words of Chicago BarsOnLine: “We know it closed over five years ago, but not a day goes by that we don’t miss it. And that’s still true.”
“I was once in a band called Three Grown Men, which practiced at the drummer’s house near Racine & Wellington. We would kill a half-case of Miller Lite during practice, then head down to MaxTavern afterward. It was there that I discovered peppermint schnapps. One nifty thing they had was a rack of used books which they sold for cheap. I purchased three volumes of Churchill’s History of the English-Speaking Peoples and a couple of Sandburg’s Biography of Lincoln. Still have them! I have to say that, as far as “neighborhood taverns” go, this place was a bit pretentious, in terms of being ‘North-Side bohemian’ (which I liked and fancied myself). My template for a neighborhood bar was Kay-Zee Liquors on 65th & Kedzie. MaxTavern didn’t compare to it. Keep up the good work!”– T.V. (October 13, 2004)