“There are no strangers here, only friends who have not yet met”
Located at the northwest corner of Lake and Sherman in Evanston, Illinois, is the best bar in the suburbs – Tommy Nevin’s Pub. While this is indeed a strongly worded statement, especially considering the sheer variety and number of bars in Chicagoland, I stand behind it 100%. I would even consider it one of the Top Five Irish bars in Chicago, if it were located within the city limits. Whatever you compare it with, not many places offer the same intriguing combination of country Irish pub, modern Chicago bar and cutting-edge alternative music venue. And, because it is located in Evanston where city laws once prevented any liquor-dispensing establishments within four miles of the college campus, combining all of these elements into one place is quite fortunate for the student population and the residents – people who really need a good place to hang out.
The sidewalk out front is cobbled with bricks that almost match the brick building housing Tommy Nevin’s. A worn wooden facade with many-paned glass windows is always far too inviting for me to ever pass without stopping in for a few pints. While downtown Evanston can be a bitch to find parking in and I don’t like to recommend driving to bars, Tommy Nevin’s has a convenient parking lot next to it although it is rather small. My advice: if you live in Chicago, take the Purple Line El to the Davis Street stop, located three blocks away from Nevin’s and two blocks from the notorious “Keg.” You can access the Purple Line by switching over to it from the Red Line at the Howard Street station.
As you step inside Tommy Nevin’s, you’ll find an old-fashioned wooden phone booth, a dining room to your left and the main barroom to your right. The restaurant is a comfortable, sunny, carpeted room with flowered drapes, forest green leather chairs and booths, and low-slung, candle-lit wooden tables with paper doily placemats and cast-iron bases. While the Holiday Inn across the street literally overshadows it (at least on summer mornings), Tommy Nevin’s blows away their nameless restaurant. The menu at Nevin’s is stocked with many traditional Irish country dishes like chips & gravy, corned beef & cabbage (known in Ireland as “bacon & cabbage”), shepherd’s pie, Irish stew (made with lamb), mussels served in Coleman’s Cream, all-day traditional Irish breakfast, and, of course, fish & chips made from whitefish or cod (best when doused with malt vinegar). I don’t know about you, but that all sounds damned good to me. Nevin’s also serves a mean sausage roll, which is my personal favorite. Surprisingly, Tommy Nevin’s also serves up some finer fare. One can start out with carrot and orange soup, cream cheese balls and even “Deb’s Guinness BBQ Wings.” Entrees include the Screaming Steak Sandwich (seasoned filet with mushrooms, onion, peppers, provolone cheese, and a spicy mayonnaise), grilled swordfish, Cornish Hen Wrapped in Bacon & Stuffed with Sage Roasted Potatoes (sounds phenomenal, doesn’t it?), London Broil, ham & brie sandwiches, and an array of steak and fish dishes. Chef Debbie Evans, a native Liverpudlian, does fantastic work, particularly with her specials. The damage usually ranges from $7 to $18 per entree. The dessert selection is also impressive, including such delicacies as sticky toffee pudding, oatmeal-cinnamon apple crumble, steamed chocolate pudding, and white-chocolate cheesecake with Bailey’s sauce.
In recognition of its culinary efforts, Tommy Nevin’s Pub was rated three out of four forks by the Chicago Tribune’s Susanne Fowler, three out of five stars by Evanston Online’s “Christine D.” (I’ve always wondered about the integrity of reviews made by people that will not disclose their full name), and the 2002 edition of Zagat’s Chicago restaurant survey rated Nevin’s as “good to very good” for food, decor and service, with an average meal costing you about $19. While the Zagat’s review may not seem that flattering, these are actually high ratings for a pub. However, I would have rated the food as “very good to excellent” had I been asked by Zagat’s. Overall, the atmosphere in the dining room is a little subdued so, when you’re finished, head ’round the corner to the bar for some after-dinner drinks.
The craic in the main barroom room is usually tremendous. Not even the white drop-ceiling can quiet the casual, endless chatting that reverberates off of the paned glass windows, worn dark hardwood floors, dark red-painted walls, a toasty warm fireplace (under a picture of Richard J. Daley), a display of Nevin’s merchandise along the west wall, and the long, polished wooden bar that runs along the south end of the room. The bar seems to only have a few of its maroon-padded barstools, as it is almost impossible to find one unoccupied and the bar itself is difficult to get to. If you park yourself around the west end of the bar, watch out for waitresses rapidly moving here and there from the long kitchen window located between the main barroom and the restaurant.
The bar features a dozen beers on tap including, Caffrey’s, McEwan’s, the latest popular brand of cider and, of course, Guinness. Stroh’s and Old Style are also available, in cans. Regarding the black stuff, the often Irish bartenders adhere to the proper “Two-Minute Pour,” which I find immensely satisfying. The reason I feel this way is best illustrated by my recent visit to Champs in Skokie, located within the outdoor confines of the Old Orchard Mall. At Champs, the bartender poured Guinness in the same way he would pour a glass of Bud Light from a frothy keg that had been dropped just prior to its being tapped: as the head formed on the Guinness, he kept pouring it off. The result was the worst head on a beer I have ever seen (as pock-marked as Michael Ironside’s face) and the Guinness was the most horrible I have ever tasted. Having said this, I must also mention that the one redeeming quality of Champs is the spicy steamed chicken, served in two small metal tins (one for the rice, one for the chicken) and which comes with a choice of spicy or semi-spicy sauces. Fantabulous.
Elsewhere around the room at Nevin’s, you can order drinks and food at a smattering of tiny wooden stools, short tables and padded bench seating. There aren’t many places to sit as Nevin’s attracts a thick crowd of Northwestern University students (Mondays and Thursdays bring undergrads, Wednesdays bring Kellogg MBA students), after-work locals, and part of Evanston’s upper crusty – so, if you see a spot, grab it quick. [Editor’s note: I originally meant to type “upper crust” in the previous sentence, but a Freudian slip resulted in a much more fitting description] A word of warning: if you go to Nevin’s during the day on the weekend, do not be surprised to find small children running around the establishment. Nevin’s can be a popular place for families and screaming children at these times. If you find yourself in an uncomfortable situation caused by spoiled Evanston rug rats, just have another pint of Guinness and see what happens when you yell at one of them. Additional seating can be found outside in the sidewalk cafe during the summer months, and in the bar’s third room where one pool table, three regulation dartboards and the only televisions in the pub are located for your enjoyment. This room also serves as one of two entrances to the newest feature of Tommy Nevin’s Pub, advertised in 70’s glam-rock lettering: Nevin’s Live.
The other entrance to Nevin’s Live is located out front, next to the sidewalk cafe. This part of the building used to be inhabited by the strangely named “New Old Orleans” restaurant but has since been absorbed into the Tommy Nevin’s multiplex. I have noticed that when a bar expands like this, it is usually because it is so popular that it either has to expand or risk going under as patrons tend to get pissed off with a place that is packed and loud all the time (bw-3 in Chicago is a great example of this). Having opened in April of 2001, Nevin’s Live is the first such venue of its kind on the North Shore, attracting droves of young alterna-types flocking to hear what has become the most cutting-edge music scene on the North Shore. The same quality of groups playing here that also play at places like the Underground Lounge, Elbo Room, and Beat Kitchen in the city. The cover usually runs about $6, and the intimate exposed-brick and red & black-tiled space holds just over 200 people. A bar runs along the north side of the room and a few tables are located in the corners, leaving plenty of space to get your groove on in the middle. A raised stage runs along the west end of the room, is draped with yellow curtains and contains a 100-year-old upright piano. In the past, Nevin’s Pub only small groups playing traditional Irish music on Sunday afternoons hosted by John Williams, and bluegrass every other Wednesday. Today, an eclectic variety of local and regional bands can be found at Nevin’s Live, booked using the same model as the now defunct Lounge Ax. Eighteen-and-over nights are held usually once a week for Northwestern’s undergrads not yet of legal drinking age.
Tommy Nevin’s Pub is easily the best bar in Evanston with its authentic Irish fare, classic pub atmosphere, real darts and pool, and an excellent potpourri of live music. The best thing about Nevin’s is that the atmosphere is natural, not contrived like many of the other pre-fabricated Irish pubs found around Chicagoland, and around the world. While some bash Nevin’s for feeling more like a “Bennigan’s” than a real Irish pub, I have to respectfully disagree. I have been to scores of Irish pubs in Chicago, around the country, and even in Ireland, and I have to say that it sure as hell feels authentic to me. To my mind, Nevin’s belongs to a select group of truly authentic Irish bars, that includes Cullen’s and Chief O’Neill’s. It’s even the favorite pub of the Ravenswood Morris (a truly random organization with a fetish-like interest in Anglican culture). Being the best bar in Evanston is no small accomplishment either, given the heated competition from Pete Miller’s and the newly-arrived Bar Louie, which are both located just up the street. At least any business lost to Pete Miller’s, or to the Davis Street Fishmarket and Merle’s Smokehouse, goes into the same kitty as they are all owned by the entrepreneurial Clean Plate Club – a company that gives the Lettuce Entertain You restaurant chain a run for their money (at least in Evanston). “Pool, Jameson, Nevin’s Pub, Guinness, Darts,” is written in gold lettering above the bar. Now, “Live Music” and “Excellent” should be added. Who would have thought that “Tommy Nevin’s,” named after founder Steve Prescott’s grandfather – an elevator operator from Galway whose picture hangs over the fireplace, next to Daley’s – could mean so much? Concert listings, ticket sales, and information about the pub can be found on Tommy Nevin’s Pub website. Cheers.