Not “Tin Cat,” “Ten Cats” or even Ten 56, but rather the “Ten Cat Tavern” is the best Ukrainian Village-style bar not actually located in Ukrainian Village – hip without trying to be. Ten Cat is a hidden gem, nestled in a place you wouldn’t normally expect to find a bar: on North Ashland Avenue, just south of Irving Park Road, just north of the ever-expanding Ginger’s Ale House, across the street from Keenan O’Reilly’s, and around the corner from the Long Room. You may have not known it was there, but Ten Cat is a home away from home for a very loyal set of neighborhood regulars comprised of pool sharks, bohemians, an older Scotch-swilling set (that may or may not have actually served in the military), Ms. Pac Man addicts, and other conversationalists of various stripes. All of the above frequent the joint for its laid back vibe, billiards and a very pleasant and as yet virtually unknown beer garden.
Ten Cat can be spotted on the east side of Ashland more easily at night with its bright sign depicting a black cat (nothing to do with nearby El Gato Negro) perched upon a #10 pool ball with its blue stripe separating the words “Ten” and “Cat.” Prior to the bar’s opening in 1987, the space used to be a vintage clothing store and, as you walk up to Ten Cat, you can get a sense of its retail beginnings with its shop-like windows on either side of the front door, and its black and white tiled entryway complete with welcome mat. Rather than showcasing textiles, the area features a rotating collection of paintings from local artists.
Once inside Ten Cat, you’ll find a narrow room filled with fandangle and an array of furnishings that would make any Village Discount Outlet jealous. Regardless, one’s attention will be immediately drawn to the two ancient, full-size Brunswick pool tables, set in the middle of the room in front of a large pastoral mosaic and bathed in a glow of sunshine through the skylight above by day and by a fluorescent glow by night – the latter of which is somewhat of an odd juxtaposition with the multicolored antique hanging light fixtures, a mermaid lamp and a light source reminiscent of Sputnik in the corner. A bit of additional light tries to fight its way into the bar through a few windows located around the room, adorned with your grandmother’s old curtains. The décor continues with a worn wooden floor and green-painted walls that lead up to a gold-painted tin ceiling from which ceiling fans hang. A long wooden bar with two series of taps springing from little barrels, runs along the southern wall and features a very cool mirrored bar back made from dark wood, lit by multi-colored beveled lights. The beer selection is quite good, as is that of the Scotch, and you can also find smokes for sale behind the bar.
“Richard prides himself on the 8-foot, 1940 Brunswick Sport King and the 9-foot, 1925 Brunswick Medallist that were salvaged from a pool hall that Connie’s family still owns. He regularly resurfaces them both with Belgian felt–giving players pool-hall quality play in an intimate setting.”
Beyond the main bar area is a little game room off to the right side that features Golden Tee, Ms. Pac Man and a South Park pinball machine. While Ms. Pac Man is a nice throwback, my heart broke when I first noticed that the Pennant Fever machine had been removed. Pennant Fever is kind of like baseball “pinball,” where your opponent “pitches” to you by pressing a button and you try to hit a pinball with a hard plastic bat controlled by another button. A home run is hit by putting the pinball in the upper deck, while a single, double or triple (or the dreaded “out”) are obtained by hitting the corresponding baseball on ground level. An old-school jukebox stocked with blues and jazz, and cash machine can be found opposite the games, all of which lies under a mosaic-tiled archway. When you get that tingly feeling, the women’s wash closet can be found a third of the way down the wood-paneled, and ornate copper-plated northern wall, and the gents’ is located just past the game room and on the left-hand side. Further back is a rear lounge decked out with even more conflicting furnishings, beige-painted walls and a fireplace. From here, you’ll find access to the hidden gem within the hidden gem: the Ten Cat beer garden. This well-kept secret features yet even more curious furnishings, this time of the patio variety of course, along with orange-painted fences with Christmas lights and at least one ancient tree similar to that found in the beer garden at Resi’s Bierstube and Sheffield’s. A garage starts where the beer garden ends to the east.
Pennant Fever R.I.P. – now just a memory at Ten Cat
To say Ten Cat is laid back is an understatement. Rather, the place has a truly mellow vibe, even with the competition quietly raging on the pool tables (free until 8:00pm and all day Sundays), while a soundtrack of cool music from around the world is played low. A somewhat older crowd calls Ten Cat home, and has a predisposition towards jeans and fleece and unusual facial hair. The regulars can be found hanging out on lounge chairs, at the maroon, high-backed barstools with arms at the bar, and I once saw one helping himself to the soda fountain as I walked out. Even though the unpredictable crowd ranges primarily between 25 and 55, the bartender carded a friend and I on my last visit because of recent pressure from the CPD. I’m not sure if he could even read our IDs under the glowing red Mary figure atop the register, but he seemed satisfied none the less. Though you’d imagine more of the feline variety to be prevalent, the regulars are encouraged to bring in their four-legged friends who are more used to a leash.
“What to wear: Whatever you grab off the floor next to your bed.”– excerpt from “INSIDE: Ten Cat Tavern” by Alison Lundgren
Ten Cat, named by owners Connie and Richard Vonachen for the ten felines that once inhabited the building’s upstairs apartment, is one of the coolest neighborhood joints around. Sans the usual crustiness of long-time joints, Ten Cat attracts a similar crowd as that found at nearby Toons, Hungry Brain, Jake’s Pub and the Gingerman (where the owners originally met, as legend has it). The place is appealing if you’re up for something a little different, especially if you need a departure from the summertime bedlam of Wrigleyville or the stroller pushing, afternoon pub crowd of Roscoe Village on weekends. Just keep in mind that although Ten Cat may be hard to find, it’s even harder to leave. Knights of Columbus!