“A North Center favorite for good times”
O’Donovan’s Restaurant & Bar opened at the start of a wave of Irish-themed pub openings in Chicago, which consists of a different place opening each week. At face value, this puts O’Donovan’s in competition with the likes of Celtic Crown, Johnny O’Hagan’s, The Kerryman, and the Pepper Canister, for a share of the lucrative yuppie-Guinness crowd. However, O’Donovan’s has a leg up on many of its American-Irish brethren with its long history, relaxed beer garden, a diverse menu, a classic Chicago theme, and magic tricks performed at your table. Overall, O’Donovan’s is one of the best neighborhood hangouts on the North Side, joining a league of bars that includes Gannon’s Pub, Jake’s Pub, and the Village Tap. For now, the place is not yet overrun with anything but a cool, mellow crowd.
O’Donovan’s is located within spitting distance of the neighborhood German classics, Laschet’s Inn across the street and Resi’s Bierstube a few doors down to the east. Although under relatively new ownership, O’Donovan’s façade resembles that of some of the other old standbys in the neighborhood like the Windy City Inn – it leaves something to be desired with its 1950’s-style stone slabs, brown wood and green awning. However, the nicely crafted, “O’Donovan’s” wooden sign and large beer garden in the back are a little more indicative of the type of place you’ll find inside. Entry, through through a pair of thin wooden swinging doors with brass bars in front, is a bit tricky as you have to brashly push them both open wide with your arms to have room enough to squeeze through. I recommend entering with a flourish, head held high. I attempted this, but people sitting at the bar appeared less than impressed… Strange. Fortunately no one glared, which instantly endeared the crowd to my heart.
The front room at O’Donovan’s is long with a beautiful mahogany bar on the left. Giant mirrors are located behind the bar, framed by cabinets with stained glass doors. Old-fashioned lights hanging above the bar, deep red-painted walls, and red candle globes on the bar and tables all give the place a warm, thoroughly Chicago feel that you can only get at places like Sheffield’s, Schuba’s, Gingerman, and other older Chicago saloons. They just don’t make ’em like that any more.
A polished wooden floor, with two thin lines painted on it, separates the bar area from a row of cocktail and low-rider tables. This seating area used to house numerous restaurant tables exclusively, but a few cocktail tables have been brought in, giving it more of an upscale saloon look. The cocktail tables don’t leave much room to walk down the aisle, but you’ll get by well if you’re polite. Be forewarned: the waitresses get very surly if you’re standing at the bar with a group of people and partially blocking this narrow aisle. Black vinyl barstools proliferate, so pull up a stool wherever you can. The yellowish-orange painted walls are adorned with French posters, lit with track lighting. This artwork is complimented by a large stuffed fish, under a few windows at the front, and a variety of rifles mounted on the wall around the room. A Tommy-gun hangs over the entrance to a polished wood-paneled dining room.
O’Donovan’s menu satisfies just about every craving. Their appetizers include chili, artichoke dip, mini corn dogs, potato skins, regular or spicy bruschetta, French onion soup, quesadillas with baked goat cheese, nachos, jalapeno poppers, and three different salads. Entrées include a 10-ounce New York Strip Steak, an 8-ounce top sirloin butt steak, 16-ounce prime rib (a deal on Sundays), Chicken Marsala, blackened catfish, BBQ baby back ribs, and tagliatelle pasta. You can also get a variety of chicken, tuna, and beef sandwiches, and burgers. Desert tops of the smorgasbord with flourless chocolate cake, key lime pie, grilled butter rum cake, Reese’s Peanut Butter Pie, deep-dish berry tart, and carrot cake. That enough for ya? Oh, yes.
“O’Donovan’s is known for its burger-for-a-buck deal, where you get an excellent hunk of meat cooked the way you want it and a plateful of crispy fries for the cost of a couple of newspapers. So go ahead and be a miser and order up two juicy burgers and flip the waitress a few bucks as a tip. You’ll still walk out for around $5 and feel good about yourself.” Rating: three out of four forks.– excerpt from The Street & San Man’s Guide to Chicago Eats (2004) by Dennis Foley
Just beyond the end of the bar is a short hallway that leads to the beer garden. This area was recently created out of half of the parking lot next door. The garden offers patrons a canopy from the sun, a few televisions under the canopy, green and white string lights, an excellent view of the recently beautified Irving Park Road, and wrought-iron railings separate your burger from the masses. There is also sidewalk café seating on the east side of the building, surrounding a large tree adorned with a string of green lights. It was here that I once met up with one of the strangest pub crawls I’ve encountered yet: “Sweatfest” in which participants wore sweatshirts and sweatpants in August. From O’Donovan’s, the crawl moved on to Resi’s, and the now defunct Benedict’s and Grizzly’s Lodge. Strange indeed.
While O’Donovan’s is a great neighborhood bar, it was very sad to see its predecessor go. Schulien’s, as it was known, had operated for over 110 years (by running a speakeasy in the basement during Prohibition) and became famous for its house magician, “Heba Haba Al,” who did magic tricks at your table while you ate. Fortunately, O’Donovan’s has kept the tradition of magic performed at your table alive with the “mystifying magic act” of Al James, who has been seen on network television. Al was there at the O’Donovan’s opening to do his drive-around-the-block-blindfolded trick. James also once replicated Harry Houdini’s “milk can” escape in the O’Donovan’s parking lot (prior to the beer garden), and in 1980, helped catch the “Plumber Rapist” by hypnotizing two policemen who thought they’d stopped the criminal but lost their notes and couldn’t remember his name or license-plate number.
If we’re not careful, the stretch of Irving Park Road in the North Center neighborhood, between Southport and Western, may become one of the best bar-hopping districts on the far North Side with the likes of Katerina’s, Globe Pub, Sylvie’s, the Long Room, and now, O’Donovan’s. Whether you’re looking for a place on Saturday night, an early evening dinner on Sunday, a Bloody Mary before a shuttle to the Bear’s game, or a place to go with your team after a softball game, O’Donovan’s is an excellent choice. If you like O’Donovan’s, you might also like a few of the other bars under the same ownership: Kincade’s, Kendall’s and Kelsey’s in Lincoln Park, and Casey Moran’s in Wrigleyville. For more information, a menu, and a list of excellent daily specials, check out the O’Donovan’s website. Cheers, Charlie.
The Old Look