The Schoolyard Tavern & Grill or “Schoolyard,” as it’s known simply by locals, is like a younger, louder and more mobbed version of sister bar Brownstone on most nights. A loyal following of softballers come after games during the week in Summer, Fighting Illini and Golden Eagles alumni come for football and basketball during the school year, and everybody else descend like vultures on carrion for the loud-thumping, meat market scene on weekends. For those rare quiet moments, one can appreciate that Schoolyard is also a classic Chicago neighborhood bar in all its Art Deco, wood-paneled glory. Add to that a decent selection of pub grub and a popular sidewalk café and you’ve got one of the most popular holdings of the Four Corners Group.
Since 1994, the Schoolyard Tavern has stood at the corner of Southport and School, just south of Southport Lanes and Justin’s. The Schoolyard is housed on the street level of a wood-frame building with beige aluminum siding, tasteful wooden Schoolyard signs, and navy blue awnings. Step inside and you’ll find a narrow barroom, in old-school Chicago fashion, making passage a challenge. A long wooden bar runs along the left side of the room with a nice mirrored Schoolyard Tavern sign above it, glowing from the blue beveled lights that surround it. The silver tin ceiling compliments the stylish rustic punch bowl lights hanging from it, as well as the wooden floor and mahogany cocktail tables lined up against the dark, wood-paneled north wall. Random pictures of horses, Abe Lincoln, and a boat hang from the wall as does a bookshelf filled with books, crystal decanters and a bust of Lincoln located above Art Deco restroom men’s and women’s signs. Sadly, the wooden phone booth is gone that once stood next to the end of the bar that used to serve as a direct line to Pompeii (an Italian restaurant at Wellington and Sheffield). Back then, Pompeii delivery men would arrive at a moment’s notice to assuage even the fiercest hunger with pizza, pasta and various fried things.
Today, Schoolyard features a full-service kitchen in the back where the tan-felted pool table and blue and red plaid wallpaper used to be. This is a welcome change because the back room was booked almost every day with a private party, which made the front room even more crowded. There’s an additional, though much smaller, bar in the absolute rear of the room and a smattering of seating at low-slung tables and banks of flatpanels, all of which has replaced the overstuffed couches, Persian rug, trophy case, and fireplace of the original tavern.
A sidewalk café that runs along School has been recently added, and is the best place to sample the Schoolyard menu. Such pabulum offered includes a trio of $9 salads, an appetizer selection dubbed “Home Room” (with the Crispy Reuben Rolls being notable for their tastiness, but they will set you back an eye-popping $7.50), and a array of $8-$10 sandwiches and burgers called, “The School Board.” Even with the age limit at night, an abbreviated children’s menu is available during daylight hours and, somewhat surprisingly, offers a quarter-pound burger for the little ones. Er, who said today’s kids have a weight problem?… For the adults, you can wash it all down with a baker’s dozen of the usual suspects on tap, a few more in bottles, and a handful of red and white wines are available for the ladies. Service is sporadic and average at best, and Schoolyard was recently rated two out of four forks by William Rice in his Chicago Tribune Review. Click here for the full menu.
Back inside, Schoolyard is not explicitly a sports bar, but there’s now even more screens on which to catch whatever game you’re looking for. Schoolyard is also one of the very few bars in Chicago to actually support the University of Illinois (maybe that explains the Lincoln theme) as well as Marquette University during basketball season.
The décor at Schoolyard evokes a somewhat upscale feel, but the crowd is the same as what you’ll find at nearby Schuba’s, SoPo and the Newport Bar & Grille, just to name a few. Only a little quieter earlier in the week, things ramp up from Thursday through Saturday as Schoolyard rivals Lincoln Park bars like Vaughan’s Pub, Kincade’s and Glascott’s for its mix of rowdiness and pretension. On weekends, don’t expect to find friendliness or good manners from either the bartenders or patrons. Getting a drink at the bar can be a challenge unless you have large breasts. If you’re not lucky enough to find a seat, expect to be constantly bumped into and don’t expect any apologies. In addition, I was once there when a rather large friend of mine was openly called fat to her face, which prompted her Aussie friend to fire off a string of obscenities that would make Sam Kinison blush. On a cold night, this same Aussie girl stood waiting for a cab outside on the metal stoop. When the bouncer gruffly asked her to move along, she kindly responded, “Why don’t you move along? This is my stoop now! Get off!” She then shoved him off, almost into the street. Fortunately, the bouncer took it all in good humor, which I find amusingly paradoxical.
“I give this place 4 stars just because my brother from another mother works the door! Other then that it’s a great place if you don’t mind being rolled in a drunken people burrito. To packed to move or get a beer, the bartenders are surprisingly spry.”– James C on Yelp (January 17, 2007)
Once known as “O’Malley’s Schoolyard Tavern,” Schoolyard was originally opened by Matt O’Malley and Paula Riggins, who cut their teeth in the bar business by managing what used to be Deacon Brodie’s in Lincoln Park (now Goodbar). In those days, Schoolyard was calmer during the week, where one could relax with a good conversation and a background soundtrack from a well-stocked jukebox. Today, the atmosphere is pretty good most of the time, making it a decent local and good for primetime pick-ups. When it gets too rowdy, just head up the street to Southport Lanes or Justin’s. For more information check out the Schoolyard Tavern website, operated by the Four Corners Tavern Group who also own Brownstone, Sidebar, Kirkwood, Gaslight, and WestEnd. Cheers, ol’ boy.