Woodlawn Tap

The Woodlawn Tap, better known simply as “Jimmy’s” because of the legendary barkeep that owned it for a half century, busily caters to students, professors and even Nobel Peace prize winners from the University of Chicago with equal vigor as to neighborhood residents, tradesmen and barstool philosophers from the School of Hard Knocks, of all races and economic solvencies. Even the inebriate poet, Dylan Thomas, is said to have whet his whistle on three separate occasions at the Woodlawn Tap (on the same day). Back then, this strip of 55th was a bustling strip of boozing until the urban decay set in that plagued the city from the time of the riots, following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, all the way through the mid-1980s. A good bar is hard to find in these parts today, though The Cove and Bar Louie tries hard and both Seven Ten and the New Checkerboard Lounge have moved in. Jimmy’s Woodlawn Tap is still the place to go in Hyde Park for conversation, cheap-but-good pub grub and free jazz every Sunday night, even though Jimmy has since gone to tend that Great Tavern in the Sky.

The Woodlawn Tap is located in Hyde Park, just beyond the northeast corner of the University of Chicago campus and next to the corner Starbucks, newly constructed out of the remains of a dry cleaner at 55th and Woodlawn – this being where the bar takes its name, and is not to be confused with the Woodlawn neighborhood directly to the south. The bar is housed within a one-story brick structure with dark plate-glass windows and black numbers placed upon a foreboding, black-painted wooden door that looks more like a side door than the main entrance. On my first visit, I wasn’t sure what to expect on the other side of that door, as previous doors I’ve stepped through that looked like that typically led to some form of abandoned building or dungeon (don’t ask). The latter of which is a little closer to what I found after stepping through the threshold of the Woodlawn Tap.

Photo courtesy of Yo! Chicago

Inside Jimmy’s, you’ll find a long taproom in classic Chicago style. A battered mahogany bar with high-backed, backless barstools runs the length of the western wall and serves up about a dozen beers on tap and at least twice that in bottles, priced about half of what you’ll find north of Roosevelt Road. Rumor has it that you won’t find Budweiser at Jimmy’s because of a long standing feud. Behind the bar is an ancient cash register that looks like it was used during the Columbian Exposition, above which is a mirrored back bar, the U of C crest, and a collection of ceramic beer steins. A series of low-slung, Formica-topped tables with worn wooden chairs can be found across from the bar, and a couple more barstools at the windows allow a lucky few regulars to leer at 55th Street foot traffic. The Woodlawn Tap doesn’t have a waitress, so you’ll need to have a gander at the solitary menu posted above the bar and they’ll bring it out to you if you’re at a table. Take Five, eat your heart out: everything at the Woodlawn Tap, from their lauded cheeseburgers to hot dogs, Italian beef, polish sausage, barbeque beef, reubens, and grilled cheese, can all be had for under $5. Lunch is also served, seven days a week, starting at around 11:00am. Please note that they only take cash at the Woodlawn Tap, but they now have an ATM. Four TVs, several old school beer sign mirrors and a bit of Sox paraphernalia rounds out the décor. A few antique sporting artifacts can be found from the now defunct University of Chicago football program, the original “Monsters of the Midway” [Plaisance] and who boasted the first winner of the Heisman Trophy, Jay Berwanger in 1935.

Just past the end of the bar in the main room is a hallway that leads past the Tap’s middle two rooms, restrooms and back room. The middle section features a “Who Dunnit?” pinball machine, a cigarette machine, video pokey, and a couple of tables. Beyond this area is a second middle room with more tables, a portal to the bar in which to place orders, and a bit more light from windows overlooking 55th. The back room, once open only to U of C students, is now only occupied during prime time and offers more tables, another wooden bar along its western wall, and jazz is played on a small stage in front of the windows for no cover charge on Sundays at 9:00pm. This is the only music you’ll hear at Woodlawn as conversation overrules music, and a set of encyclopedias are on hand to settle the inevitable “intellectual” arguments.

The floor, ceiling and faux wood paneling on the walls are all painted black so you can’t see over 50 years’ worth of accumulated tar from the cigarette smoke, though the off-white portion three-quarters of the way up does. Whether you love or hate the Illinois Smoking Ban, which took effect statewide on January 1, 2008, you can thank the Woodlawn Tap for it. The Environmental Protection Agency conducted a survey of air quality at 25 Chicago businesses and found the Woodlawn Tap to be the worst. Patrons have always claimed that the bar was smoky, but no one realized that the air quality measured was equivalent to breathing after a volcanic eruption and thus labeled “hazardous” by the EPA with 195 times more pollutants than the average non-smoking setting. Present ownership installed a new exhaust fan following the study.

“I suggest that you take a look at Jimmy’s, a University of Chicago and Hyde Park hangout. It’s not like any other bar that I know of. To begin with, it’s official name is the Woodlawn Tap; the name ‘Jimmy’s’ appears nowhere on the building or in the phone book, but nobody ever calls it the Woodlawn Tap. That was the name of the bar when Jimmy Wilson bought it… He had been the most popular bartender at the University Tap (always called the UT) and from the day he took over it has always been Jimmy’s. At that time it was a long, dark narrow room, and it was only one of many bars in a mile stretch of 55th Street. But urban renewal eliminated all, including the UT, but Jimmy’s which expanded into the new two store fronts.”

– J.S. (January 24, 2003)

Jimmy Wilson ran what he called the “Woodlawn Tap,” but no one else did. Following a brief stint working for Drexel Bank and as a bartender at nearby University Tap (now gone), Wilson ran the joint from 1948 until his death on February 22, 1999. During his reign, Jimmy catered to everyone under the sun, and regular patrons have even included Pulitzer Prize winner Saul Bellow (as U of C student and professor), anthropologist Margaret Mead, and the poet Dylan Thomas even ventured forth from the White Horse Tavern in New York City to stop by not once, but three times, between U of C speaking engagements. In the words of House Resolution 91_HR0335, as passed by the State of Illinois State of Illinois 91st General Assembly: “Jimmy Wilson and the Woodlawn Tap built a tradition of bringing together community residents, workers, and students, faculty, including Nobel Prize winners, and staff from the University of Chicago; crossing divides of race, class, and ethnicity and providing entertainment, humor, and joy to the patrons… Jimmy Wilson provided employment to hundreds of community residents and students, in many cases enabling those students to afford the costs of completing their education with the wages they earned…” Jimmy was also recognized on his 70th birthday by the University of Chicago itself, with a proclamation naming him an honorary post-doctoral alumnus for providing fond memories to decades of University of Chicago students.

“‘Whereas,’ began a proclamation read by a university vice president, ‘The Woodlawn Tap has served for many years as a center of intellectual ferment enlivened by occasional imprudence in the consumption of fermented beverages, and
“‘Whereas Mr. Jimmy Wilson, proprietor of the Woodlawn Tap, has sought to assiduously maintain ‘In Vino Veritas’ as a scholarly adjunct to ‘Crescat Scientia, Vita Excolatur,’ and
“‘Whereas generations of University of Chicago graduates retain the image of The Woodlawn Tap as a pleasant, sometimes central aspect of campus life,
“‘Now therefore do I, Hanna H. Gray, President of the University of Chicago, wishing to make proper observance of April 18, 1982, as Jimmy Wilson’s 70th birthday, Declare Mr. Wilson an honorary post-doctoral alumnus of this university and send him greetings.'”

– excerpt from “Pageantry is on Tap at the Woodlawn” by Jon Anderson in the Chicago Tribune (April 21, 1982)
    • Woodlawn Tap Pinball

Photos courtesy of D.L.

“When a beer company declined to give him a volume discount, Mr. Wilson responded by refusing to carry the brand. He wouldn’t budge, not even when Harry Caray made a personal appearance at Jimmy’s, asking him to change his mind. ‘Jimmy went out and put a case of (that brand) for Harry in the refrigerator, in case he ever came back,’ said manager Bill Callahan.”

– excerpt from “Jimmy Wilson: Owned Woodlawn Tap” by Diane Struzzi in the Chicago Tribune (February 24, 1999)

Photo courtesy of Mikiedoggie

Following his passing, the Woodlawn Tap was closed for almost a year as its new owners Jim and Bill Callahan had to fight the city to keep open the infamous tavern, after renovating the space. The City of Chicago’s License Appeal Commission fortunately reversed a December 30, 1999 denial of the bar’s liquor license after a successful petition with 1,200 signatures was submitted by then Student Government President Andy Hong to Hizzoner, Mayor Richard Daley himself. In a University of Chicago Chronicle article, “City reverses denial of ‘Jimmy’s’ license,” (March 30, 2000), Jennifer Leovy reports: “‘This is terrific news,’ said Hank Webber, Vice President of Community Affairs. ‘Jimmy’s is an integral part of the University and Hyde Park community.’ Support for the Woodlawn Tap has been wide-ranging, from 4th Ward Alderman Toni Preckwinkle to University students.” The reason for the original denial, “…because a parking lot across the street at St. Thomas the Apostle Church, which also houses a school, was 89 feet from Jimmy’s door. State law requires that a bar must be at least 100 feet from a church building and 100 feet from the property line of a school. Jimmy’s allegedly missed the mark by 11 feet. However, the Callahans’ attorney argued that the parking lot was not the school’s, but rather the church’s, making Jimmy’s more than 100 feet from the church building and far enough from the school to receive a liquor license,” according to Lowe’s article.

At the Woodlawn Tap today, you’ll continue to encounter plenty of scruffy, scholastic types with lots of glasses, jeans, unkempt facial hair, a noticeable lack of hair care products being used, and the occasional worn sportcoat. The talent is pretty thin, but you’ll find a few hotties if you’re into that bookworm-librarian thing. You’ll also find a fairly diverse crowd in terms of age, race and baseball allegiance, though Sox fans have the edge. The Woodlawn draws a pretty good crowd on Wednesdays through Saturdays after 9pm, and Friday afternoons after class. If you don’t live in the area, you can get to Jimmy’s via Lakeshore Drive or the Dan Ryan Expressway. Parking may be a bit of a problem if you can’t snag a meter spot on the street. We here at the Chicago Bar Project are loathe to suggest driving in a city so full of cabs, but by car is the best way to go if you’re coming from the North Side.

“When it re-opened, it was like they had taken the idea of Jimmy’s and built it anew; the atmosphere was almost the same, but not as dirty. Personally, I miss the dank. It’s more like a movie set of Jimmy’s than the real thing, but it’s still cool. It’s the only place I make a point of frequenting in Hyde Park anymore.”

– Morgan Wascko posting on Metromix (July 30, 2003)

Let’s face it, the Woodlawn Tap is a dive bar, but a lovable one similar to that of Weeds Tavern, Rainbo Club and the Billy Goat Tavern. The Woodlawn Tap attracts some of the best minds to have ever come out of Chicago, rivaling that of Tommy Nevins (Northwestern), Hawkeye’s (UIC), Cunneen’s and Hamilton’s Pub (Loyola), and Kelly’s Pub (DePaul). The Woodlawn Tap is easily the best bar in Hyde Park that I’ve been to, though it’s the only bar in Hyde Park I’ve been to… On that note, The Cove on 55th also has a loyal following but does not serve food. For more information on “Jimmy’s,” you’ll have to call the bar listed above as the Woodlawn Tap does not have a website. I’m sure Jimmy would be proud of that. Atta boy, Jimmy.

“On April 25, 1958, I married my husband and we were given our wedding reception at Jimmy’s. Since my
Father was ill, I asked Jim to “give me away” (The wedding was at the small
14th century, side-chapel of the Unitarian Church). Jim was a workaholic, as
you may remember, and he agreed initially, but later gave me a happy
alternative. He shut off all but the front room for our reception and
provided all the food and drink for many hours. (Not a characteristic
behavior for Jimmy, but he loved my husband and I and we loved him. We all
loved Jimmy. I would never have trusted anyone who didn’t love Jimmy.”

– L.S. (March 6, 2009)