“No Corona. No floofy drinks. Limited dancing.”
Editor’s note: with heavy heart, I am sad to report that Sterch’s closed sometime at the end of 2009 or early 2010. This is the first of the Top 100 Historic Bars of Chicago to close, and we are left wondering what will happen to the elephant graveyard of old bar signs…
In a city choked with mock-Irish pubs, synthetic clubs and flatpanel-filled sports bars, it is comforting to know that Sterch’s is still going strong. Sterch’s is an old-school neighborhood bar in a neighborhood that does not value such things. On the other hand, this is where North Side Bohemians, Revolutionaries, Hippies, and Yippies used to hang back in the day, lured there by the inebriate charms of Bob Smerch. The bar even claims, “Your mom used to drink here.” Insolent bastards. You can’t help but love it.
Sterch’s signature blue & yellow striped, triangular awning with “Sterch’s” written humbly in yellow lettering can be found on the west side of Lincoln Avenue, next to Wise Fool’s Pub and across from O’Malley’s West. A rotation of neon beer signs are the only other adornments to the tavern’s otherwise modest facade. Step through the plate glass door and you’ll find a single-room saloon with a worn wooden floor to match the ceiling and battered wooden bar that runs the length of the southern wall. Here you can grab a seat at a ragtag selection of beige, green and black barstools. This is a good vantage point to take in the intriguing decor. A Maguire U pennant hangs above a chalkboard that reads “Alcohol Futures,” created by regular Joel Tassin. Rather than being a complex system of stock market options, the alcohol futures are kept track of by the barkeeps when someone wants to buy one of the regulars a drink, pays for it, but the recipient is either not there or has had too much already and “saves” it for later. Fascinating. A series of sayings rotates below another chalkboard, illustrating the four beers on tap and five in bottles. One of my favorites: “The more corrupt the state, the more numerous the laws. Tacitus.” Boxing gloves and stuffed carrots hang behind the bar, next to a wooden shelving unit sporting the saloon’s liquor selection below and kickshaw collection up top. There’s also a photo behind the bar that depicts Bob Smerch in a general’s uniform, army hard hat, fat stogie hanging out of his mouth, and with a mean look on his face. It turns out this was from one of those old Wendy’s commercials with Clara Peller yelling out, “Where’s the beef?” Now there’s a blast from the past… Sterch’s does not have a kitchen, so if you’re a bit peckish, I recommend a pizza at Bricks just down Lincoln beforehand unless it’s a bag of YoHo potato chips you’re after or if you subscribe to the “beer is food” philosophy. They do have a microwave, though, along with a “NO PETS” sign on it. Disturbing.
“An old war horse whose patrons date from before during and after Lincoln Avenue’s heyday. If you’re lucky enough to run into writer Jim Touhy, your conversation needs are over. Hope you hit ‘Bag Night.'”
– Excerpt from The Official Chicago Bar Guide (1994)
For you non-smokers, there’s… er… a “No Smoking Section” that consists of a rectangular cube made with PVC tubes, hoisted about eight feet off the floor and inside the front window, across from the bar. A sign says, “No smoking in this box,” which just so happens to be 0.6% of the space in the bar. I wonder what will become of this “section” when the State of Illinois smoking ban goes into effect on January 1, 2008… As you can guess, it gets a bit smoky at Sterch’s, though the two ceiling fans and ventilation machine do the best they could possibly be expected to.
“The customers are so tight at Sterch’s that several years ago the bar instituted the custom of placing about a dozen mousetraps along the bar. Each mousetrap has the name of a regular scrawled on it. If a regular is overserved and ‘forgets’ his tab, the mousetrap is sprung with tab money intact and hung on the wall, awaiting the customer’s next visit.”
– Excerpt from “Local joints rife with character” by Dave Hoekstra in the Chicago Sun-Times
(October 5, 2001)
The one-seater restrooms are located within the western wall that also features a large, multicolored neon “Casino” sign (a replica of the one from the movie Montenegro), between poorly hung photos of Chicago sports legends, and above a photo collage of regulars. You’ll also find a small jukebox, Golden Tee, and two video poker machines towards the rear. The northern wall of the groggery is used to display works from local artists, photographers and sculptors, some of whom host showings. Below the art gallery are three, high-backed wooden booths, the best one being the largest just to the right of the door, and next to the middle booth with the sign, “J. Mahoney after 4.” This is a good spot to take in the elephant graveyard of old signage from bars long since shuttered: a small O’Rourke’s lamppost sits at the end of the bar, a wooden Orphans sign hangs on the north wall, and a neon “Bill & Mary’s” sign hangs above the door, which happens to be from the bar owned by Bob Smerch’s parents, once located at Augusta and Cicero. A series of mirrors lie at the tops of the booths allowing voyeuristic glances towards the dusty regulars at the bar, many of whom are former hippies and graying Bohemians whose average age hovers around 55. This tends to drop when overflow from the Lincoln Avenue madhouses surrounding Sterch’s starts coming in during prime time. Whatever your age, you are welcome at Sterch’s.
“A genial older crowd of writers and would-be poets hangs out at this convivial bar where there’s never a shortage of conversation, some of it even sensible. If you’re lucky, you’ll visit on ‘Bag Night’ and find out for yourself.”
– Excerpt from Lonely Planet Chicago 2nd Edition (2001)
A plaque on the southern wall, just inside the windows in the southeast corner, reads, “House of Sterch, Nov. 18, 1971.” This refers to the day Sterch’s was opened, replacing the “Volstead Act” – also a bar, named for the law that created Prohibition in the U.S, and the Synthetic Theater prior to that. The name “Sterch’s” is a combination of names, stemming from the two original owners Harlan Stern and Bob Smerch, with Bob being the sole owner today. The carrot underlining Sterch’s in the joint’s logo stems from Harlan Sterch’s habit of serving “french-fried carrots,” back when Sterch’s had a small kitchen. During the “Body Politic” street festival (organized by community theater groups back in the late 60s and early 70s), Harlan Stern and Bob Smerch would dress up in white bunny suits and sell carrots for 25¢, with proceeds going to charity. You’ll find a photo of the spectacle on the southern wall, just to the left of the bar.
“When I used to go to Sterch’s on Lincoln Avenue, I was always in awe of Bob Smerch — that people would come into this bar and pay money just to be in his presence.”
– Excerpt of a narrative told by Fern Taylor Bogot in 2000 and posted by Luke Seemann
(October 1, 2002)
Through the years, Sterch’s has had many famous regulars. Back when this stretch of Lincoln Avenue was part of the counter-culture scene back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Chicago Seven are said to have frequented Sterch’s after their conviction for inciting the riots durin the 1968 Democratic National Convention was overturned. So did Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times movie critic) and Betty Thomas (“Lucy Bates” in the TV series, Hill Street Blues and director of The Brady Bunch Movie, Charlie’s Angels and John Tucker Must Die), and local folksinger Fred Holstein who started a bar of the same name, the sign from which can still be see on the southern wall. Bill Veeck once came in to watch the opening day White Sox game the year after he sold the team (1982), and William Peterson used to come in prior to his CSI days, after performances at nearby Victory Gardens at the Biograph Theater. Local director Bonnie Hunt, who also loves Twin Anchors, once had a short-lived TV show and, when one of her guests didn’t show up, Hunt remarked, “He must have been at Sterch’s last night.” Hunter S. Thompson also stopped by one night and proceeded to smash up a urinal in the mensroom. He later sent a check for $700 to cover the damage with $2,500 added on to account for potential future visits.
“Those were wonderful days to be young and alive and in Chicago. I didn’t know Fred well, but let’s say I knew him frequently… At the time of his death, Fred was bartending and singing at Sterch’s, one of the surviving bars from the golden age. Last summer in Grant Park I ran into proprietor Bob Smerch and his famous grin and his young daughter, and we talked a little about the old days, but so much went unsaid. We knew. We had been there. Some lasted longer than others. I bailed out in 1979. If I hadn’t, I’d be dead. But I won’t say it wasn’t a wonderful time.”
– Excerpt from the article, “Fred Holstein: ‘He was the kind of guy who always had time to talk'” by Roger Ebert (January 20, 2004)
Sterch’s is all about drinking. It’s an actual pub surrounded by those that only claim to be. This has been the case since at least the early 70s and is unlikely to change until owner Bob Smerch, legendary to Sterch’s regulars, hangs it up. My own personal visits to Sterch’s once spanned seven years, from September 1996 to January 2003, and nothing had changed in that time except for maybe a few beers on tap. For more information, check out the Sterch’s website. Atta boy, Smerch!
“This is a song for all the good travelers
Who passed through my life as they moved along.
The ramblers, the thinkers, the just-one-more-drinkers
Each took the time to sing me a song.”
– Lyrics from the song, “All the Good People” written by Ken Hicks
“Continuing north on Lincoln Avenue, we come to the all time, citywide famous Sterch’s, 2238 North Lincoln, operated by the famous Chicagoan, Mr. Robert Smerch. Mr. Smerch has had a long and varied career. He was once a carnival operator, then a paratrooper in the Paraguayan Air Force during that nation’s struggle for liberation. He’s been a lumberjack, art gallery operator, and has worked extensively with medical research upon rabbits. Mr. Smerch runs the last of the taverns in this neighborhood which is riddled with singles bars. Specializing in a form of semi-elegant funk, Sterch’s is known for its casual and friendly drinking atmosphere, as well as for its exhibits and its secondary division, Galleria Smerch. The Galleria holds monthly shows which feature local artists, as well as the international artists now and then. The clientele here is a unique collection, including a U.S. Army General, a retired Madame from a Detroit bordello, a Berber Chieftain and countryfolk from Wisconsin and Michigan who have made Sterch’s one of their urban stops when they visit town. You will find a brief wine list, excellent cocktails, and a more than usually crowded afternoon drinking scene. Sterch’s is the last stronghold of the bohemian, beatnik, and maddog Chicago drinkers.”
– Excerpt from Great Chicago Bar & Saloon Guide (1985) by Dennis McCarthy
One of the last makeovers at Sterch’s