Editor’s Note: Melvin B’s, and the transient Cedar Hotel above it, closed in September 2007 to make way for the Mondrian Hotel. We miss one of the best beer gardens the city ever saw. Fortunately, there’s still Cactus next door.
“There are no rules”
The Rush & Division district of the Gold Coast teems with some of the most expensive steakhouses, finest restaurants, swankiest lounges, cheesiest pick-up joints, and smokiest taverns in Chicago. This has made Rush & Division one of the liveliest areas in the city, any night of the week. In a competitive environment like this, it is hard for any restaurant or bar to even get noticed, let alone become a sought after destination. Melvin B’s has not just gotten “noticed,” but has become a cultural institution of Chicago. Patrons flock to Melvin B’s to hang out in the beer garden when the weather is warm and to observe the ever-interesting passersby, both during the day and after work.
Melvin B’s is located where both State and Rush Street meet in a triangle, and where Cedar Street ends in the resulting multi-pronged T-intersection. Melvin B’s is a small bar cradled at the base of the transient Cedar Hotel. In the summertime, a large beer garden rolls all the way out to the sidewalk, in the same manner as Mickey’s Snack Bar located further north. The beer garden makes up 80% of the entire establishment. It may actually seem bigger, mainly because of being adjoined with the Cactus Gold Coast, where it’s “Man vs. Margarita.” The Cactus also has a good-sized beer garden, but it’s about half the size of Melvin B’s. To an extent, it is hard to differentiate where one beer garden ends and the other begins. Just look for the smallish brick, Hadrian’s-type wall that serves passively as a divider. From the outside, by car or on foot, you can find Melvin B’s most easily by listening for the din within a mile of the place, and by looking for the small sign with the turtle driving the truck, and green and white stripes, hanging under the neon “Cedar Hotel” sign as you get close.
Whether you would like to sit inside or out, head down the aisle that separates both halves of the beer garden to the hostess’s stand. This stand lies just opposite of an interesting wooden totem pole with carved images of Harry Caray, Cubs and Bulls logos, and a turtle. If you’re there just for drinks, you can have a seat at one of several cocktail tables in the north half of the patio. Ice-cold beers can be quickly obtained from the beer tub, just inside Melvin B’s. This half is separated from the entrance to the Cedar Hotel by a high wooden fence. Thank God for small favors. If you’re there for food, you’ll be seated at one of the green plastic, low-rider tables with white plastic chairs on the south half of the patio. The dining half of Melvin B’s is served by waitresses, and the food includes: chicken that is either jerked, blackened, buffaloed, gumbo-ed, or grilled; award-winning ribs (although they came in fourth in their own rib contest), turtle soup, pasta, sandwiches, and a good variety of other standard pub grub fare that is all served in baskets with wax paper. I always thought they should switch the seating areas as the dining area borders the rowdy Cactus beer garden instead of the cocktail tables, which is a better match. It’s probably because the few large trees that hold up the outdoor televisions are located on the other side.
A green and white painted wrought iron railing separates both halves of the beer garden crowd from foot traffic. This allows for unobstructed people-watching that is widely proclaimed to be the best in the city by patrons and guidebooks. People that can be seen in this area include: hot young women in summer dresses, well-dressed men of all ages in expensive suits (often seen flashing money around), tourists and wealthy travelers from all over the world, aging Gold Coast condo dwellers, college students from all over the area, and businesspeople and traders from the Loop that get off work early. The crowd inside Melvin B’s is comprised mostly of the same, except for Wednesday evenings when Melvin B’s is the destination for dozens of roller-bladers following their ride around the the Gold Coast.
The only reason I have been inside Melvin B’s is that I’ve had to use the bathroom on many occasions. From these brief journeys, I have seen the following: an L-shaped wooden bar, multicolored linoleum, a video poker machine, an orange banquette, daiquiris and margaritas served from swirling machines, a US 66 sign and pictures of horses on the ceiling, a Golden Tee, clocks displaying the time all around the world (and at the Betty Ford Center), several red and green recessed lights, a glass counter with Melvin B’s merchandise, an old-fashioned gumball machine, a photo booth, and a Budweiser sign with revolving Clydesdale horses. All of this plus a “Horsemen Only” sign leading to the men’s bathroom, in which you’ll find a metal trough with electronic, urine-present flush sensors. On the way back from the can, I once saw a map on the wall pinpointing other alleged Melvin B locations, including ones in Tecumseh, NE, and Fairfield Glade, TN. This has yet to be properly substantiated. I have yet to be inside Melvin B’s in the winter time, but what I’ve heard is that the place still draws a good crowd because of its huge $5 summer drinks, like the “Electric Coolade,” and the beer garden sometimes serves as a stage for ice sculptures.
“My best friend and I thought Melvin’s was ‘OURS’ of course. We would make sure to go every day for at least one glass of wine. Weather never stopped us. There was a snowstorm; while everyone was inside the bar drinking hot toddies that Saturday early evening, we convinced the waiter that we wanted to sit outside in the snow, agreeing to meet him at the door with our food. We stayed outside on the patio, just the two of us, in two feet of snow, with it still snowing, eating our early dinner. An unforgettable experience.”
“Hamburgers and steak sandwiches, and an enclosed sidewalk cafe with an unobstructed view of Rush Street for people-watching. The place used to be part of a whorehouse, but it doesn’t show. Upstairs room now is as innocent as a room with a pool table can be,” – written by Jory Graham in her book, Chicago, an Extraordinary Guide (1967). Kay Loring, in her book A Chicagoland Restaurant Guide, Presented with Pride and Prejudice (1978), wrote:
“Melvin’s patio cafe in summertime is a pleasant place for munching hamburgers (medium rare on dark rye) and watching the kaleidoscope of city people go by, and drift in. It’s a paper napkin, serve-in-the-basket kind of place, with personality. Burgers are good. We’ve not tried anything else here, although house specialties sound interesting: quiche in five guises; eggplant Parmigiana; and turkey Tetrazzini with garlic bread. What’s more, you may brunch at any time of day on steak and eggs, and Melvin’s interpretation of poached eggs Benedict. Service is pleasant by a youthful staff of the blue jeans set; too rushed and busy to pay much heed to niceties. Miscellany: Pianist (indoors) 7 pm to midnight daily, Sat & Sun 1-5pm; accessible to handicapped; dress restrictions–no swim suits.”
Year after year, Melvin B’s continues to draw huge crowds in spite of nearby competitors like Bistro Zinc, Carmine’s, the Leg Room, Luciano’s, Gibson’s, the Hunt Club, Dublin’s, and Tavern on Rush even though they still won’t let you in if you’re just wearing a swim suit (sheesh). If you haven’t been to Melvin B’s yet, pencil it into your calendar – now, so you don’t forget. You’ll thank me for it. But hey, don’t just take my word for it: for its efforts, Melvin B’s received one of three Editorial Nominees for Best Outdoor Bar (2000) and Best After-Work Bar (2000-2001), and was voted into the Audience Top 10 for Best After-Work Bar in Citysearch: Chicago’s 2000 poll. Not bad for what used to be a whorehouse! For more information, check out the Melvin B’s website. Keep on truckin’!
After a friend of mine from Australia came to Chicago for a visit in 2001, he had this to say:
“In no particular order, my top three favorite bars were Melvin B’s – great atmosphere – the Friday after-work-type scene was excellent… Murphy’s Bleachers… and Subterranean.
“But I think, Melvin B’s takes the cake. Awesome would be a word to describe how it would be if you could finish work about 3:00 p.m., grab a table outside, and drink plenty and meet/greet/catch up with friends for five hours. Then, go across to the Big Bowl, have a feed, then go home. Follow that up with some quiet Stellas, possibly at the Irish Oak, then retire home for the evening.
“Next time I am in Chicago, and I do intend on returning, I shall fulfill that fantasy. Mark my words.
“Actually, Melvin B’s takes #1.”
– Mad Dog