“Bowl for your health”
Southport Lanes & Billiards is excellent for so many reasons. In addition to its maple bowling alley and billiards on regulation-size tables, the place serves excellent pub grub, offers a great selection of craft ales, has the best tavern bathrooms in the city, and has a sidewalk beer garden that rivals that of Cullen’s and Cafe el Tapatio. And, it was once a brothel. What more could you want from a tavern? How about everything on the menu is $5.95 for lunch? Southport Lanes is truly a Chicago institution.
Like nearby Schuba’s (Southport and Belmont), Floyd’s Pub (Bucktown), and Mac’s American Pub (Ukrainian Village), Southport Lanes was built by the Schlitz brewery in 1922 as one of the hundreds of “tied houses” in the Midwest (only Schlitz beer could be served). The exterior of this two flat of orange brick is quite impressive, especially with its enormous Schlitz globe logo in bass relief on the building’s north side, still found on Schlitz bottles today. Once Schlitz sold the bar, the menu offered fornication to help fund the transitional purchase to its new owners in addition to its nobler alcohol distribution efforts. Because prostitution was, and still is, illegal in Chicago, the owner had to subtly advertise the delights to be found upstairs. He did this by having M.K. Siegner paint murals on the walls depicting nymphs frolicking in negligees. These murals can still be seen today, both in the front room and above the bowling pins. Additional murals of these nymphs, sans clothing, could be found along the staircase and in the second floor bedrooms but those have since been painted over. Unfortunately, for some of you, that part of Southport Lanes’ history has ended… but hey, there’s always internet porn.
In 1991, the bar was purchased and renovated by the same owners that later brought us the Daily Bar & Grill, and such now-defunct dillies as Corner Pocket (now Victory Liquors), Hudson Club, and Lucky Strike (now Seven Ten, which also offers bowling and billiards). Ownership of Southport Lanes has since transitioned to the Spare Time empire, who also owns Seven Ten, Firehouse, Riverview Tavern, Robey Pizza Company, and Popkin Tavern (Richmond, Virginia). Fortunately, the new owners did not mess with the formula that made the original, “Leo’s Southport Lanes,” an excellent tavern. Leo’s was run by Leo and Ella Beitz dating back to 1960, who took over from Leo’s parents who ran it since 1946. The building dates back to 1920 and still features its original English tap house design, with its long wooden bar, leaded stained glass, long wooden beams, a marble floor, and Schlitz can still be had, albeit out of a can.
The major draw of Southport Lanes is its four maple lanes for bowling and the pins that are hand set by actual pinboys in the back. The lanes can be found through an archway in the eastern wall of the main bar and house balls can be found on both sides of the room. After you’ve had your fill of bowling, you can tip the poor bastard by stuffing your bills into your bowling ball and rolling it directly into the gutter. And, as the sign says, “Remember, if you see legs, don’t bowl,” and please also refrain from putting your bowling shoes on the bar when you’re ready to return them… (Yes, I speak from experience). At $20-$30/hour and a few bucks for shoes, it’s not a bad deal if you can stand the long waits. If the lanes are too crowded, you may have better luck at nearby Diversey River Bowl or Seven Ten on Lincoln. Both are far easier to get a lane, and Diversey River Bowl is much cheaper to boot. Otherwise you can have a go on the small pool table that sits in front of windows overlooking Southport.
“The pinboys have also given rise to some local jokes. Like the one of a man who bowled a perfect 300 game – plus 1. The extra point was for knocking off a pinboy’s wooden leg.”– excerpt from Charles Epstein’s Chicago Tribune article, “Pinboys Still Wanted Here” (December 2, 1979)
“I did get to know the Southport Lanes, 3325 N. Southport, before Leo and Ella Beitz sold it. The dark Bavarian tavern adjacent to the lanes never seemed to be crowded. Leo leisurely worked the bar, dispensing Old Style from the tap and shaking the rafters on occasion with his thunderous laugh. He and Ella sometimes could be overheard exchanging bowling tips.”– excerpt from George Papajohn’s Chicago Tribune article, “New Neighbors for Better, Worse?” (September 27, 1991)
Photo courtesy of Andrew M.The sad thing is that Southport Lanes often rents out the bowling room for private parties. This causes the front room to get extremely crowded. In turn, the waitresses to get pissy because they need to get from the bowling room to the service area at the bar and, inevitably, there are too many people in the way. Elsewhere in the front room is an old-fashioned wooden telephone booth, a popcorn machine, postcards of Old Chicago, a wooden Indian, framed old newspapers (including the front page of the Chicago Tribune announcing the repeal of Prohibition), comfortable black vinyl booths, and a variety of stuffed fish that would make the owners of Grizzly’s Lodgejealous (including a rather scary one with its mouth agape, framed on a plaque). The bar itself is rather long with wooden kegs built into the side. Schlitz fans will appreciate the globe light in the foyer as well as the clock behind the bar.
While the bowling room has a small pool table, there is a spacious pool room in the back with seven very nice, regulation-size billiard tables costing $15-$20/hour. The pool room is located beyond the front room, through the narrow hallway, and past the candy machines. My recommendation: bypass the giant orange sour balls on your way to or from. The pool room also has a back bar and is lined with televisions. Just watch the low hanging billiard light with your stick and no masse, chief.
Food at Southport Lanes consists of a solid line-up of appetizers, salads, wraps, and a variety of sandwiches highlighted by the turkey Reuben, “Southpork” sandwich, and the “Honeymooner” – a concoction of turkey, Swiss cheese, bacon, and honey mustard on toasted sourdough bread. The Lanes also features over 40 beers, and with 22 varieties of single-malt Scotch is the closest competitor to the Duke of Perth’s Scotch selection. Click here for the entire food and drinks menu. All of the above can be thoroughly enjoyed during the summer months in the spacious sidewalk cafe that spans both Southport Avenue (optimal views of foot traffic) and Henderson Street.
Lastly, let us dwell for a moment on the glory of the Southport Lanes bathrooms and why they are the best in the city. You begin your journey to these porcelain palaces by walking up a nicely carpeted stairs to the second level. You then walk done an elegant hallway, complete with hardwood floor and several ornate lamps. At the end of the hall are three large windows offering a superb view of Southport Avenue (you can see these windows in the picture below, located just above the main entrance on the corner). The bathrooms are clean and very spacious. If only my bathroom was as nice…
Even though the new owners doubled the price for bowling and billiards upon its acquisition, Southport Lanes is one of the best bars in the entire City of Chicago, and a favorite for neighborhood condo dwellers, suburbanites and visitors alike. The history, the amusements, the libations – it all makes me giddy just to think about. If you like Southport Lanes, you will also like Sheffield’s, Glascott’s and the original John Barleycorn. For more information, check out the Southport Lanes website. Schlitz, surprisingly, Schlitz!