“The Greatest Bar Below Earth”
Most of my favorite bar selections start with a memorable first impression. From my first head-slamming brain freeze at the Northside Bar & Grill back when they had a frozen drink machine, to being a witness to some really awful (but memorable) behavior at the Abbey Pub on St. Patrick’s Day, to some late nights just trying to make the night never end at any 4am bar.
One of my best memories of a bar coming into my life at the right time and place happened two years ago on a visit downtown. Yes, downtown. And no, no it’s not ESPN Zone. My husband and I had spent a weekend downtown and were in search of the Christmas spirit, a search somewhat equivalent to Charlie Brown’s hunt for the Great Pumpkin. Needless to say, this spirit is not found at Macy’s, or on Michigan Avenue, or even waiting in line at the American Girl Doll store when your mother has given you a list for your niece that is not only itemized by dolls’ names that don’t exist, but is also illegible. (Nothing says Christmas like a line of kids with Coach purses yelling at their mom’s while picking their bottoms.) No, the lines, the revolving doors, the crowds playing chicken with you on the sidewalk just don’t evoke a sense of holiday joy. At least not for me.
Defeated, we retreated to a former haunt of my husband’s – a little underground bar called Streeter’s Tavern, found on the north side of Chicago Avenue, just east of State Street and around the corner from the more tourist filled Pippin’s Tavern (and also owned by the Lodge Management Company).
Streeter’s won me over and filled me with the Christmas spirit. Not only because it is located conspicuously out of view of the average tourist; not just because they have Woodchuck cider waiting for me; no, not even because the mirrors in their women’s and men’s bathrooms are see-through so that you can “go” while watching the table on the other side of the wall (the “pee and see”). Oh, not even because there are purse hooks on the bar. Instead it is because when I had lost all hope of this unobtainable Christmas joy and thought all I could get was a little warmth for my liver and my feet – you brought me Santas. Probably about 100 of them.
It was a cold night and we were the only ones in the bar, until when out on the sidewalk there arose such a clatter. We looked at the street level window to see what was the matter. When what to my wondering eyes should appear. But a hundred dressed up Santas in need of a beer. It was a pub crawl you see. There was a Hulk Hogan Santa. An Elvis Santa. Every kind of Santa you could ever dream, and they were oh so jolly – even jollier after the drinks were poured. We took pictures and made jokes and laughed. What a time! And then we left, not to return for another year.
We told the story to the bartender on our return visit and he laughed, saying that we were lucky, they weren’t on the schedule for Santas normally, so it must have been just for us. This year there were no Santas, but we had just as good a time. This time we spent the afternoon reminiscing with the bartender about the bar’s history, both from his perspective and my construction working and lunch break bar-visiting husband’s. Remember when they used to serve chili? And hot dogs? They were free with a drink. Remember when El Norte used to deliver through the window on the other side of the bar? On a good day you can still call over to Downtown Dogs and they’ll run them over for you. There are bottles of ketchup and mustard behind the bar. Of course, they are owned by the same management company, but I’ll get into that later.
What you can find on an average day at Streeter’s is a pretty reasonable selection of beer and liquor, at prices better than most downtown bars. They have about 20 beers on draft – including Goose Island Honkers, 312, and Matilda as well as Sprecher, Blue Moon, Hoegaarden, Pilsner Urquel, Hacker Pschorr, Sam Adams, Newcastle, Bud, Miller, and Old Style. They carry Fat Tire in bottles, along with a ton of beers that don’t stand out to me as anything to write home about – Corona, Modelo, Heineken, Stella, Rolling Rock, PBR, High Life, Labatt’s, and so on. They have a foosball table, a couple of pool and ping pong tables, a DJ booth, and TVs with sports playing. The bar seats about 20 and the remaining folk can park it nearby at cocktail tables made from beer kegs. There are neon signs and self-promoting decor up all over the bar, and at holiday time you’ll be hard pressed to miss the lights, tinsel, stockings, and garland. The crowd throughout the year is consistent. There are nearby construction crews in the afternoon and service industry workers at night. Then there is a whole ‘nother crowd towards the holiday season, a gaggle of folks like me – or sneaky tourists who saw Pippin’s and kept on walking.
Our bartender gave me his run-down on the history of the bar. The building used to be at street level, but with the raising of the streets in Chicago, the second floor became the first floor and the first became the basement. Considering the city started raising the street level in the 1850s and carried on for the next 20 years, the building is old. The bartender Wes could only tell me that the bar has had many lives including stints as McNasty’s, Checkers, and in the 70s or early 80s it was the Clover Leaf Club. He laughed about how the bar used to be shaped like a clover, and anyone who sat at the center leaf had to have their drink slid to them – it was too far to reach by hand. In the 80s the Lodge Management Company bought the bar and renamed it Streeter’s Tavern. This same management company owns quite a load, and I mean “load” of bars. Some I don’t love, some are tolerable, either way – parents can’t have the same kid twice and management companies can’t produce the same bar twice. So to all the people who love the Hangge Uppe, Bootlegger’s, Mother’s, Mother’s Too, The Lodge, and She-Nannigan’s – you go girl! And for the more Irish-inclined, they also own River Shannon in Lincoln Park, Mahoney’s in River West, and both Pippin’s and Downtown Dogs, adjacent to one another on Rush Street. The only sign of the company within the bar is a photo of the late F. Owen McKeaney found on the wall outside the men’s bathroom. He was the president and CEO of the Lodge Management Group at the time Streeter’s was acquired and died in 2001. There’s a poem underneath the photo titled “A Ruthless Serenity” written by someone whom I suppose to be his daughter or relative.
You never forget the best or worst memories of your favorite bars, it’s often the average experience that slips away. Streeter’s is great choice for the local drinker who finds themselves downtown. It’s not pretentious like the hotel bars. It’s not tacky like the themed bars (you heard me ESPN zone). It’s a neighborhood bar that seems somewhat misplaced in its home – rather, it’s a sign of what once was. If you are downtown and need a place for, as my father-in-law calls it, “a Coke and a joke,” (makes me laugh every time), try Streeter’s. Or, if you are as lucky as me, perhaps you’ll seek out the holiday spirit and find yourself parked by their street level window noting every pair of black boots that walk by – hoping that one pair will be attached to a some red velvet pants and a belly in need of beer. For more information, check out the Streeter’s Tavern website.