Editor’s Note: the haunted legend that currently houses the Red Lion Pub is currently vacant as the building is to be torn down and a new one, housing a new Red Lion Pub, will be constructed in its place.
While Cullen’s and the Duke of Perth offer the most authentic Irish and Scottish atmospheres in the city of Chicago, having a pint at the Red Lion Pub comes the closest to feeling like you’re in merry old England. While part country pub and part London city bar, the Red Lion offers a laid-back environment that is rather conducive for a good conversation and sampling the fine English board of fare. The Red Lion also offers a forum for comedy, literary readings and ghost stories. In fact, the Red Lion is one of Chicago’s most notorious haunted establishments stemming from a turbulent history dating back to the 19th Century. All that, plus one of the city’s most intriguing rooftop beer gardens, makes the Red Lion one of my favorites.
The Red Lion is easily spotted along the crowded bar corridor on Lincoln, between Fullerton and Wrightwood, with its bright white sign and red lion figure. The ancient wood and brick building consists of two stories and a third floor storage area. Although you can’t hang out in the storage area, there’s enough to explore on the first two levels. The Red Lion’s bright red facade features white-painted windows offering many panes of glass in classic English style. A thin red post appears to hold up the front part of the second story (?!?), threatening to give way with every boozer that stumbles past it.
Step through the worn wooden doors, and you’ve entered the closest thing you’ll find to an English pub in all of Chicagoland, though Globe Pub makes a valiant effort. There’s a fireplace with model ships on the mantel, wooden tables, and bench seating in the front room. The brick floor in this area bows toward the ceiling and is reminiscent of the rolling meadow-like feel of Lilly’s floor across the street. The bar itself, tilted severely towards the south wall due to the rolling floor, runs along the left side of the room, offering all things English behind it. The bar is never very crowded, and is so laid-back that they often show full-length movies and television documentaries on the TV behind the bar. Blazing Saddles, Dr. Strangelove, the Three Stooges, and Patton are pub favorites. Loud conversation and blaring music are found elsewhere in the area. If you’re alone and want someone to talk to, head to the Red Lion and you’ll be discussing literature, history, politics and sport before you know it. In fact, it has been noted by some that if the current co-owner, Colin Cordwell, could pour drinks as fast as he can talk he’d be a rich man today. “Oh, you STILL want that beer?” is commonly heard. The crowd consists mainly of neighborhood regulars and homesick ex-pats looking for a quiet pint during the week, beer garden enthusiasts in the summer, and younger, louder types on the weekends.
Past the bar is the dining room, decorated with London transport posters and an authentic British phone booth painted in red. A narrow hallway beyond the dining room takes you past the kitchen window, which offers you a glimpse at things you don’t want to see, and leads to a rear staircase. This staircase, by almost being completely hidden, acts not only as a secret passage, but also as a convenient way to make a quick exit (no dine-and-dash, please!)
Across from the bar are the one-seater bathrooms, which are somewhat scary. Rickety, carpeted stairs across from the bar lead to the smallish upstairs bar and candle-lit dining area painted in dark red and green. Over this stairway hangs a stained-glass window with a memorial plaque underneath it, serving as a dedication to the original owner’s father who was buried without a headstone on his grave back in England (read about John Cordwell’s father below). The second floor dining room features literature readings, covering science fiction, fantasy, Twilight Tales, occasional “Red Light Night” readings of erotic prose on Monday nights, and open-mic comedy on Thursday nights. This part of the Red Lion once served as the original performance space of the “Shakespeare Repertory,” in 1986, now known as the Chicago Shakespeare Theater located at Navy Pier. There is also an upright piano, which does not seem to get played very often. While this room is nice, I suggest the downstairs for food and bar talk, unless it’s summertime.
In summer, head down even more rickety wooden stairs from the second floor dining room to the outdoor patio and beer garden. The first half of this area offers green tables and blue chairs atop a wooden deck, with a large climbing tree somehow growing through it. This tree is an “ailanthus altissima,” also known as the “Tree of Heaven,” as well as “Chinese Sumac” and “Stinktrees” (though I’ve never smelled anything of the Red Lion’s tree). Trees of this nature grow as weeds and their root systems have been known to disrupt foundations and sewers. Head back up a few more rickety wooden stairs to the second half of the rooftop deck. This area offers white plastic tables with red chairs, a cement floor, red-painted cinder blocks on the building next door, and is surrounded by a wooden trellis-like cage. It may not sound like much, but this beer garden is one of the larger and most relaxed beer gardens in the city. One of these days, I’m going to take my Tenant’s Lager, climb the tree, and observe patrons from my beer-monkey perch.
It all must start at the Tree, of course. The Tree,
the World Tree, Great Yggdrasil. But our Tree grows
through very brick and mortar of this place.
And if the Tree.. this Tree, our Tree,
is ash or oak or elm-irrelevent.
It grows, this Tree, unseen,
through cheerful restaurant. Music. Talk. Sports on TV,
or Patton, Zelig, Braveheart, Duke Wayne,
It grows, our Tree, unseen,
through funky cozy second-floor pub.
The Churchill Room, home to writers and readers,
fictioneers and comedians.
And the ghosts of course.– excerpt from “A Tree Grows Through It” by Andrea Dubnick, as appearing in Tales from the Red Lion (2007)
It was in the beer garden one Thursday night that I experienced some of the worst comedy I have ever heard. Earlier in the evening, we avoided paying the cover charge for the comedy by going upstairs via the “secret” staircase to have a meal. Unfortunately, I had the misfortune of hearing the whole comedy act anyway. I wish I could have that part of my life back, as I would have gladly paid a cover to not have heard these “comedians.” What I heard was not even remotely funny, but instead was full of swearing to get cheap laughs. In addition, the comedians were encouraged by an audience that seemed to be comprised only of other comedians, similar to the slam poetry group I encountered once at the now-defunct Joy Blue. To top it off, the sound system was loud and distorted, making an uncomfortable situation unbearable. I had to shout to hear friends sitting right next to me and it was difficult to enjoy my meal. The “comedians” that night made real amateur comedy seem as old and welcome as the Red Lion Pub in Rusthall, England, built in 1415, by comparison.
Historically, the English are not known for their food, making “British Cuisine” seem like an oxymoron. However, I have found English food to be quite satisfying, particularly at the Red Lion where I’ve personally had the fish & chips, and bangers & mash – both of which were fantastic. For those of you who aren’t familiar with English food, bangers refers to sausages and mash refers to mashed potatoes, the latter of which are served pleasantly peppered making them a bit spicy. The Red Lion offers other Pommy favorites as shepherd’s pie, sausage rolls, steak & kidney pie, burgers, Welsh Rarebit, and ploughman’s sandwiches. In the 2002 edition of Zagat’s Chicago Restaurants survey, the Red Lion was rated as having good food, service and decor. An average meal should cost you around $18.
“Just read through your excellent overview of the Red Lion in Chicago and was amused by your references to British food. Bangers & mash and fish & chips. British food is much maligned especially by our near continental neighbours who judge food not by its freshness and quality but by the sauce in which it is served. We Brits believe that a flavorsome sauce is used to disguise the taste of inferior meats and seafood. If you would like to sample culinary delights try Rack of Spring Lamb, Rare roast Sirloin of Beef with real Yorkshire Pudding, Barnstable Oysters served live with lemon and pepper, Roast Grouse with parsnips and red currants, Jugged Hare, Black and White Puddings (made from pig’s blood) Lancashire Hotpot, Geordie Tatty Stew, peas pudding with roast ham and mustard, and a thousand other traditional British dishes. Try a simple test of your own: cook fresh Queen Scallops in salted butter and a little lemon juice and serve with buttered wholemeal bread, or buy a pack of frozen scallops and cook Coquille Saint Jacques to the traditional French recipe. I bet you won’t taste the scallops in the Saint Jacques but you will enjoy the sauce.”– D.T. (February 6, 2004)
The building housing Chicago’s Red Lion was originally built in 1880, nine years after the Great Chicago Fire. At that time, the building was actually located north of Chicago, in the town of Lake View (later annexed to Chicago in 1889), and was surrounded by farms and countryside. Across the street lies the Biograph Theater, where John Dillinger was gunned down by Melvin Purvis of the Justice Department’s Division of Investigation (forbearer to the FBI) on July 22, 1934. Dillinger was fingered by the “Lady in Red,” who was a Romanian brothel owner named Ana Cumpanas (aka Anna Sage) who ratted him out in an attempt to avoid deportation, and she actually wore an orange skirt and white blouse. Dillinger like to stop by what is now the Red Lion Pub for an apple prior to the movies, as the building then served as a Greek fruit stand. The building later became a produce store, a laundry, an IBM typewriter assembly facility, and a head shop where present-day owner Colin Cordwell claims is where 3.5″ rolling paper was invented. The building was rescued from absolute filth as “Dirty Dan’s” in 1984 and it took them three months just to clean the place out, prior to renovations – and they even served all-you-can-eat spaghetti with a salad bar prior to that! Would you ever eat at a place called Dirty Dan’s? The new owner: a British chap named John Cordwell.
You may know Cordwell as the actual Royal Air Force pilot that was shot down in World War II, imprisoned in the Stalag Luft III prison camp and was the inspiration for “Flight Lt. Colin Blythe, ‘The Forger'” played by Donald Pleasence in the film, The Great Escape. Cordwell forged passports and helped dig the tunnel, but was fortunate not to have escaped as 67 of the 70 that escaped were captured and executed. After the war, Cordwell came to Chicago and helped found the architectural firm that that designed Carl Sandburg Village and Presidential Towers. Cordwell also served as Director of the City of Chicago Planning Commission and was called the Father of the Blue Line El.
Cordwell selected “Red Lion Pub” for his new tavern, one of the most commonly used pub names in Britain, perhaps only after “The Crown.” Many claim the proliferation of this name was due to the heraldic device (coat of arms) of John of Gaunt (now Ghent), fourth son of Edward III. Others believe that it was James I (a.k.a., King James VI of Scotland), who demanded that the red lion of his Scotland be displayed in all public places throughout England upon his ascendency to the throne. Many owners may have changed the name of their pubs if they were anything related to Catholicism, following Henry VIII’s rejection of The Church and creation of the Church of England, so that he could divorce Catherine of Aragon. Whatever the case, we do know that use of a red lion was and remains very common in the coat of arms of many British families, particularly those who attained power. Adopting heraldic elements like the red lion was a way to demonstrate a publican’s loyalty to the powers that be – either that, or an incredible lack of originality by the British, at least with pub (and sovereign) naming…
Although the Red Lion is widely known for its English atmosphere and spanking-good ales, it is more widely known for its apparitions. While some of the ghost stories may have been brought on from a night on the piss, some may actually be true. It has been reported that several male and female ghosts, thought to be past patrons or workers who have died in the building itself or nearby, call the Red Lion Pub home. Much of this activity seems to have appeared directly following renovation of the pub’s second floor from apartments to a second bar, where a cold spot can often be found near the top of the stairs and where phantom footsteps can be heard from below. The Eric and Kathy Show on 101.9 even held a seance here in 1999. Observed spirits include:
- A scruffy, swaggering cowboy
- Two males, one of which is a bearded, dark-haired man who was killed by a blonde-haired man as a result of a gambling debt
- A dark-haired woman named Sharon, dressed in 1920s-era clothes, who likes to hold the ladies restroom door shut on the second floor, trapping female patrons for at least 15 to 20 minutes; she also likes to tidy up the place (I could use a ghost like this for my office)
- A disembodied female scream also from the restroom upstairs – according to Richard T. Crowe, in his book Chicago’s Street Guide to the Supernatural, when this scream was once heard in his presence, a woman cop kicked in the locked door only to find no one inside
- A 20-year-old mentally disabled woman who was known for wearing too much lavender perfume, and can now be detected by that same smell
- John Cordwell’s Father who did not receive a proper burial back in England
- A woman that died from an epileptic seizure in the restaurant area downstairs
- The malicious former owner, “Dirty Dan Danforth,” who is believed to be responsible for an invisible force that shoved Colin Cordwell down the stairs (which sent Colin to the hospital) – he himself used to speak of his “invisible friends” to the video store owner across the street
- John Cordwell himself, who passed away in 1999 and allegedly appeared as a bright, smoke-like spirit in a photo taken of a couple one night in the pub in 2003 – Colin claims the light is clearly that of his father due to the outline of his cap, glasses and hand on the woman’s breast
Since 1984, the Red Lion has satisfied local Anglophiles with excellent English pub grub, creepy ghost stories and a beer garden that would make the owners of Sheffield’s jealous. While its only direct competitor, the Glob Pub, offers excellent food and a good variety of British ales, the Red Lion has it beat on the authenticity of its English atmosphere. I recommend the Red Lion anytime you’re looking for a bit of a chat and a pint or three. For more information, check out the Red Lion website. Bottoms up, old boy.
“Just read through your excellent overview of the Red Lion in Chicago and was amused by your references to British food. Bangers and Mash and Fish and chips. British food is much maligned especially by our near continental neighbours who judge food not by it’s freshness and quality but by the sauce in which it is served. We Brits believe that a flavorsome sauce is used to disguise the taste of inferior meats and seafood. If you would like to sample culinary delights try Rack of Spring Lamb, Rare roast Sirloin of Beef with real Yorkshire Pudding, Barnstable Oysters served live with lemon and pepper, Roast Grouse with parsnips and red currants, Jugged Hare, Black and White Puddings (made from Pig’s blood) Lancashire Hotpot, Geordie Tatty Stew, Pease Pudding with Roast Ham and Mustard and a thousand other traditional British Dishes. Try a simple test of your own: cook fresh Queen Scallops in salted butter and a little lemon juice and serve with buttered wholemeal bread, or buy a pack of frozen scallops and cook Coquille Saint Jacques to the traditional French recipe. I bet you won’t taste the scallops in the Saint Jacques but you will enjoy the sauce.”
– David Tomlinson (February 6, 2004)
Photograph taken by Carla G. Surratt of Picturing Chicago