Now a location of do-it-yourself stir fry join, Flat Top Grill, O’Rourke’s along with the Old Town Ale House, Quiet Knight and the Earl of Old Town used to be one of the favorites of the real (and wannabe) Chicago literati, including Roger Ebert. O’Rourke’s moved locations sometime in the early 1990s, to a quieter spot that used to be a house across from the Steppenwolf Theatre on Halsted, but didn’t last too long after that. O’Rourke’s was sadly a bit before my time, so rather than throw my two cents in you’ll find some reflections upon the bar from the people that knew it. For those of you lamenting its loss, weep not – the Old Town Ale House, located just to the west offers a similar atmosphere and crowd, and is still open for drinks and conversation until 4:00am everyday (5:00am on Saturday).
Days of Wine and Roses
“After work, the gathering place in those days was a bar called O’Rourke’s (on North Avenue, just west of Wells Street), a hangout with the look of a shabby Irish pub. O’Rourke’s had photographs of Brendan Behan and William Butler Yeats on its walls, a coal stove, a polished oak bar, and a sign advertising a boneless chicken dinner for 15 cents (i.e., a hardboiled egg). ‘We thought of ourselves as bohemians or antiestablishment,’ Ebert recalls.
“The typical slog went from the newspaper office to Riccardo’s for dinner and drinks, to O’Rourke’s until closing at 2 a.m., then down North Avenue a block to the Old Town Ale House, which stayed open until four. The trek became known as the Bermuda Triangle. ‘Night after night, year after year, all the time,’ says Ebert, whose drinking crew included Zonka, Galloway and John McHugh, a former Daily News reporter whom Ebert calls his ‘oldest friend in Chicago.’
“Sometimes [Roger] Ebert would interview stars at O’Rourke’s – Jane Russell, John Wayne, Mel Brooks, or Clint Eastwood. Although Ebert’s rules required the stars to be treated like anyone else, one night an O’Rourke’s regular screamed at Charlton Heston, ‘My God, it’s Moses!’ and he cheerfully autographed her bra.”
– Excerpt from “A Life in the Movies,” a chronicle of the life and career of Chicago film critic Roger Ebert, written by Carol Felsenthal, Chicago Magazine (December 2005)
“Just down the street [from Old Town Ale House] is O’Rourke’s. You’ve probably heard about the place even if you haven’t been there. Legend has it as an Irish pub, a writers’ hangout, and a den of intellectuals. O’Rourke’s patrons come from some distance and the regulars find it acceptable to commute. Huge photos of James Joyce, Brendan Behan, Sean O’Casey and George Bernard Shaw cover one wall. The photos, some Irish posters and Guinness Stout are about as Irish as the place gets, however. The back room is the headquarters for some of the best darts throwing in the city and it’s one of the bars in Chicago where people who like to talk will be found. Proprietor Jay Kovar is doing an admirable job maintaining what has become a Chicago tradition here.
“This is one of the city’s major St. Patrick’s Day depots. Starting at 7 a.m. on that day, what appear to be thousands of people pass through these doors in celebration of the city’s Irish holiday. If you are unfamiliar with this part of town, stay to the north side of North Avenue for safety’s sake.”
– Dennis McCarthy, The Great Chicago Bar and Saloon Guide (1985)
“For a dozen years of my life, I gazed into the face of Brendan Behan almost nightly. There was an enormous photograph of him on the wall of O’Rourke’s Pub on North Avenue, and it didn’t take a lip-reader to guess which word began with his upper teeth posed on his lower lip. Drunk and disheveled, he must have been in a late stage of his brief and noisy progress through life. He wrote that to be drunk in Ireland in his youth was not a disgrace but a sign of status, because it showed you had enough money to pay for the drink. By that measurement, Behan was a millionaire.”
– Excerpt from Borstal Boy review by Roger Ebert (March 22, 2002)
The second location of O’Rourke’s at 1625 N. Halsted, now Cori’s Wine Bar
Photo of O’Rourke’s (II) courtesy of Planet99.com
“Popular with the ‘literary’ crowd, this bar has survived its recent move to a more yuppie neighborhood. Enjoy a drink with such Irish laureates as Wilde, Yeats, and Joyce. Across the street from the Steppenwolf, it’s a good place to go before or after the theatre.”
– Sweet Home Chicago – the Real City Guide (1993)