Editor’s Note: sadly, the Prodigal Son is gone, literally. Apparently all that bacon made for one hell of a grease fire that burnt the place down sometime towards the end of 2003. Let’s just hope that there’s a chance this establishment will fulfill it’s name’s promise and return soon.
The Prodigal Son Bar & Grill is one of the most unique pubs in the city and is quite an odd treasure considering its location in the Wrightwood Neighbors section of Lincoln Park. Free bacon, Q*Bert, Elvis memorabilia, tiki décor, an intriguing array of bottled beer, more versions of grilled cheese than you can shake a stick at, medieval artwork, and small, previously unknown bands all contribute to the Prodigal Son leaving an indelible mark on your psyche. Located in the midst of a busy strip of bars along Halsted that includes the Hidden Shamrock, Peg Leg Sullivan’s, Griffin’s, aliveOne, Corner Pocket, Kingston Mines, B.L.U.E.S., Goodbar, Tonic Room, and, more importantly, the lesbian temple known as Girl Bar across the street, perhaps this is why the Prodigal Son stands out – because it has to.
“I’ve been a wild rover for many’s a year
And I’ve spent all my money on whiskey and beer
And now I’m returnin’ with gold in great store
And I never will play the wild rover no more.
Formerly a Lebanese restaurant named Uncle Tannous, the Prodigal Son is located on Halstead, less than half a block north of Wrightwood and two blocks south of Diversey. The red-brick façade retains the Mediterranean feel of Uncle Tannous with its keyhole-shaped door, while French windows that open inward in summer and a Wild-Rover like fellow pouring ale into a goblet set onto a pig have been added. Step inside and walk across a ceramic-tiled floor to the smallish bar nestled into the north end of the room. Here, pull up a stool under a straw overhang framed by two long wooden tiki columns that look like they were retrieved from Bamboo Bernie’s before it was unjustly turned into “blu,” but rather is a remnant from the Last Luau 2000 New Year’s Eve tiki party. Small plastic drinks menus detail an impressive variety of bottled European ales like J.W. Lee’s Harvest Ale (England), Ayinger Celebrator (doppelbock from Germany), La Chouffe (25.4 ounces from Belgium), Jacobite Ale (Scotland), and Guinness (Ireland) just to name a few. Beer prices range between $3.50 and $12.00. Additionally, the Prodigal Son serves Miller, Goose Island, Three Floyds Alpha King, Pabst Blue Ribbon in cans, and only one beer on tap: Konig-Pilsner ($3 pints on Wednesdays). My recommendation: try the three Samuel Smith Pale Ale (one of three Samuel Smith varieties that also includes Oatmeal Stout and Taddy Porter). While Budweiser is currently offered, its time may be limited as the local distributor has put the squeeze on a few smaller bars like Prodigal Son by refusing to deliver anytime but Fridays and then blowing them off on those days. Prodigal Son also offers a good selection of white and red wines for $5 to $8 a glass and $13 to $19 per bottle.
“I went to an alehouse I used to frequent
And I told the landlady my money was spent
I asked her for credit, she answered me nay
Saying, ‘Custom like yours I can have any day!’
In addition to free bacon on Wednesdays (this is not a joke), the metal-bound menus at the Prodigal Son reveals some very interesting fare. One can start out with “Wingaloes” (chicken nuggets with spicy buffalo wing breading), a corn dog, garlic parmesan cubes served with sour cream dip, or breaded pickles all moderately priced from $3.00 to $5.50. For your main course, one can order from the biggest selection of grilled cheese in the city – 12 to be exact. Bacon, roast beef, jardinière peppers, chicken, pepperoni, pesto, artichokes, plum tomatoes, and ground beef are available with Swiss, American, cream cheese, and mozzarella all served in plastic baskets for $5.50 to $7.00 from 5:00 p.m. until 11:00 p.m. For its efforts, the Prodigal Son rivals comfort food bastions Stanley’s and Silver Cloud, and was even selected by Metromix as one of the Top 5 Spots for Grilled Cheese Sandwiches in 2002.
“I took from my pocket ten sovereigns bright
And the landlady’s eyes opened wide with delight
She said, ‘I have whiskeys and wines of the best
And the words that I told you were only in jest.’
While you are noshing on these thought-provoking items, have a gander at the oddities around you. A smattering of cocktail tables are surrounded by high-backed, black metal chairs with red velvet seats across from the bar and in front of the windows. Three murals hang from the south wall of what looks like medieval scenes perhaps leading up to the outbreak of the Bubonic Plague, and an ancient copper Schlitz advertisement hangs from the high ceiling and is reminiscent of the first helmets used by divers ala 60,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Three wooden steps lead up to a small, Lilly’s-like arched landing upon which you’ll find a Star Wars pinball machine, a cork dartboard, and perhaps the only remaining Q*Bert machine in the city. An orange couch without legs lies below a giant Elvis sign with letters illuminated by large light bulbs at the top of the landing, upon which was seated a busboy watching a Spanish-dubbed version of Police Academy on my last visit. Refreshingly, Prodigal Son does not have a Golden Tee machine or try to sell you t-shirts with their name on it.
These one of a kind surroundings, beer selection and pub grub are all incredibly conducive to lively conversation. On my last visit, a group of friends and I talked of Miami’s lax drinking policies on the beach, a friend’s antics of getting to the airport late with just a Target bag carrying one change of clothes for a long weekend, and of what to expect at an impending bachelor party. Laid-back regulars mix with alternagirl and beatnik-like bartenders, along with friends and family of the bands. An eclectic mix of local punk, indie, jazz and garage bands play each night of the week on a tiny elevated stage in front of the windows where cocktail tables are found during the day. It may be considered strange if you’ve actually heard of any of the bands playing at Prodigal Son, with names like Hayshakers, Behold the Living Corpse, Chomsky, and Trash Brats, unless you hang out at the Fireside Bowl.
“I’ll go home to my parents, confess what I’ve done
And I’ll ask them to pardon their prodigal son
And when they have kissed me as oft-times before
I never will play the wild rover no more.”
– lyrics from the traditional Irish ballad “Wild Rover”
The Prodigal Son can’t be beat for its unconformity in a bar scene brimming with too many homogenous Irish pubs, sports bars and dance clubs. Its funky vibe is unmatched by any bar east of the Kennedy and makes Prodigal Son a great pub to hang out in any day of the week. Given its small size, relative obscurity, and beer distribution woes it has been my experience that bars like this don’t often last for long. Even though Prodigal Son has been around since November 2000, its days could be numbered so head over there while proprietors Joel Donahue, Beth Donahue, and “Mohawk John” are still offering free bacon. And remember: it’s no! Nay! Never! No nay never no more will you play the Wild Rover no never, no more.
“When a croc is in a death roll, happily masticating an impala, a vegetarian hippo can freely nudge the bloody beast one way or another.”
– anonymous posting on Citysearch: Chicago’s Prodigal Son web page