Celebrity status abounds in Chicago’s historic Old Town. It’s where the previously unknown honed the skills that made them legendary (The Second City). It’s where Frank Sinatra went for a slab of ribs every time he came to our toddlin’ town (Twin Anchors Restaurant). It’s home to the dive bar where Roger Ebert drank many nights, including the evening he was named the first film critic to receive the Pulitzer Prize (The Old Town Ale House).
Old Town is an artsy and affluent neighborhood that’s been the dwelling place of German immigrants, Puerto Ricans, hippies, and yuppies over the years. Today, it’s mostly the latter. The neighborhood’s brick alleyways and narrow tree-lined streets are populated with Italinate- and Queen-Anne-style houses. They cozy up to the busy main strips of North Avenue and Wells Street where nightlife, comedy clubs, and eclectic shopping are king. Change and gentrification have weaseled their way in and taken away some of its character, but the spirit of Old Town can still be felt at its longtime local establishments.
Ebert’s famed watering hole, The Old Town Ale House, is a bang-up example. Just “the Ale House” to regulars, its interior stretches no longer than half a city lot, and no wider than three restaurant-sized aisles. In the late fifties, the bar played strictly classical music and served tuxedoed men. Today, the worn wooden bar winds along the length of the room with golden, rook taps standing guard at the center. Neighborhood regulars man the bar in the afternoon, and a mix of tourists come like clockwork at nightfall. The hard-core partiers and drinkers have the option to stay till four a.m. Like its regulars, time has taken its toll on the Ale House, but at night, you don’t see wear and tear. You see history. Battle scars. Personality. In the back corner, there’s a stage-like cubby where friends can gather for a more private conversation, or musicians can pull out a guitar and ignite a sing-a-long. The roar of the jukebox drowns out any secrets not meant to be shared, and the bartender listens to the ones that need to be.
On any given day or night, you might find Bruce Elliot there, the Ale House’s longtime-patron-turned-owner, and resident artist of the comic, risque political paintings that hang upon every inch of its walls. On one particular Thursday night, Bruce sits stage left of the heavy wooden door, drinking a Bud Light on ice. He calls it a Polish martini, as factual as can be. Everything Bruce says comes out with absolute certainty, a confidence you gather he’s earned from winning (or not accepting losing) heated conversations.
“I’ve been here so long, this area is unrecognizable to me now,” Bruce says, remembering his first apartment in Old Town in the early sixties, a rickety two-bedroom just down the street from the Ale House that went for fifty-five dollars a month. Compare that to the average thirty-one-hundred-dollar-a-month price tag for a two-bedroom today. Bruce is as festive in speech (he nicknames troublesome patrons with words unfit for print) as much as he is in dress. Today hula girls dance across his black Hawaiian button-up. Atop his head rests a black baseball cap with white lettering: OLD TOWN ALE HOUSE. Bruce’s eyes bounce around the bar as it fills up with the evening crowd. He gives equal regard to leaned-back regulars sipping the five-dollar draft as he does the explosive tourists who point at his paintings, having no idea the artist is in their midst. Bruce says everyone is welcome as long as they behave. Doesn’t matter who you are if you don’t, though. “I beat the shit out of Jim [Belushi] one night, right out here,” Bruce says, pointing. “Nobody ever deserved it more than he did. He would come in here and do somersaults, constantly mooning people. One night it was packed so I just grabbed him by the hair and tucked him under my arm and wailed on him.”
The Ale House breathes life into a stretch of North Avenue that’s gone cringefully suburban. Starbucks, Walgreens, and McDonald’s are all just a stone’s throw from one another. Thankfully, so is The Second City, which Bruce says is part of what’s kept the bar relevant. It’s been nearly sixty years since Alan Arkin and Fred Willard kick-started the theatre’s popularity, paving the way for soon-to-be “Saturday Night Live” greats John Belushi, Gilda Radner, and Dan Aykroyd. In more recent history, the likes of Mike Myers, Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert, and Tiny Fey called the Old Town stage home. Cast members of every “Saturday Night Live” generation have bellied up to the Ale House’s bar, Bruce says. “The most famous person who comes in here now is Michael Shannon,” Bruce says. “I like to say Hannibal Buress got his start here, too. We used to have a talent show, and I’d give him a beer and he’d work through his bits. George Wendt said that it was the place he’d go for his last beer on earth. And Anthony Bourdain did his TV show here [‘Parts Unknown’].”
Bruce is being modest. Bourdain came to the bar and gallivanted all over Chicago with Bruce as his tour guide. Bourdain also wrote the foreword to Bruce’s book (“Last Night at the Old Town Ale House”) and connected him with a publisher to get it off the ground.
Still, Bruce sits unassumingly in his bar, pouring the last of his Bud Light into his glass of ice. “To me, Old Town ended when they widened North Avenue,” Bruce says. “The whole side of the street was a bunch of really great little old German bars and restaurants. All that got torn down, and I just thought, well, that was really the end. It was no longer.”
Does Bruce see any changes coming to the Ale House’s future? He takes the last sip of his beer.
History of Change
Rewind to the nineteen hundreds, and the meadows of North Avenue were the ideal place for German immigrants to plant their families. They farmed the swampland into vegetable fields, earning the area the nickname “The Cabbage Patch.” Art fairs called The Old Town Holiday were held and still are today. This year was the sixty-ninth annual Old Town Art Fair, hosting more than fifty thousand attendees and two hundred artists.
Change happened fast after the turn of the century. In the fifties, Old Town was where Chicago’s first wave of Puerto Ricans came to settle, and The Cabbage Patch was re-dubbed “La Clark.” In the sixties, Old Town was the epicenter of hippie counterculture. The original Piper’s Alley on North Avenue was a bazaar-like shopping center (literally in an alley) packed with head shops, candle-makers, and poster vendors. Later, attractions such as Ripley’s Believe It or Not and the London Wax Museum moved in. The folk music scene also erupted in Old Town throughout the decade and was the original home of the Old Town School of Folk Music (est. 1957). The school and performance center still retains Old Town in its name but moved to Ravenswood after the 1968 riots, when racial division in Old Town was hot, and North Avenue served as the equator. Through the eighties, LGBT culture in Old Town was thriving, and Wells Street in Old Town was comparable to modern-day Halsted Street in Boystown. As the area gentrified, the bars closed and moved further north into Lakeview. Piper’s Alley was replaced with a modern-day shopping center under the same name but without the alley. Today it warehouses The Second City theatre and classrooms, chain restaurants, and a fitness center.
Enter the nineties and many of Old Town’s original families decided to move to the suburbs, leaving older Victorian buildings up for grabs. Racial tension began to dissipate when the nearby 586-unit Cabrini Green public housing buildings were torn down in 1995. Young professionals moved in. Gentrification was complete by 2000.
Old Blue Eye’s favorite Old Town joint
On the inner streets of Old Town, a neighborhood gem shines brightly in Twin Anchors Restaurant. The green-and-white-striped awning that hangs outside is illuminated by the red neon lettering of its name. When you walk in and onto the red and white floor tiles of the dining room, you choose between heavy wooden booths equipped with front-sided hooks and red-topped tables in the back. Both lay in wait of a plates of ribs, coleslaw, onion rings, and baked beans.
Paul Tuzi’s family has owned Twin Anchors since 1978. He and his sisters, Mary Kay Tuzi and Gina Manrique, operate it today. “It’s a classic Chicago corner tavern that used to be more known as a bar, but now it’s more known as a restaurant,” Paul says. It’s a casual environment and Paul says it’s hardly changed a bit since it opened in 1881. “When you walk through our doors, it’s like you’re stepping back in time,” he says. “We get people who grew up around here or had their first date here and they come in and tell us it looks exactly the same as it did fifty, sixty years ago.”
The list of celebrities who have eaten here doesn’t stop (and can be viewed on their website): Frank Sinatra visited every time he was in Chicago and requested shipments when he wasn’t. Other fans were David Mamet, Roseanne Barr, Conan O’Brien, and Martin Short. Paul has also met John Belushi, Dan Akroyd, Harry Caray, Mike Ditka, and Bobby Hull. The restaurant was brought to the public spotlight when “Modern Family” producer Steve Levitas wrote Twin Anchors into the show’s script. While a student at Northwestern University, Levitas would grab dinner there and said he never forgot it. He came in for dinner when he was in town for the Cubs World Series win and brought the head of Fox Entertainment with him. “We were flattered,” Paul says humbly. “There are regular people who come in, celebrities who come in, and then there are regular people who may one day become celebrities who come in.”
Bill Murray once stopped by, asked for a table by the window, and left his waitress a hundred-dollar tip. Chris Farley would go to church at St. Michael and come in for ribs afterward. One night, thirty years ago, Paul was off for the night and Donald Trump came in. “I didn’t even know who he was back then,” Paul remembers.
When Paul’s family bought the restaurant in the late seventies, the neighborhood was working class and their customer demographic was older. Paul said he saw change take hold in the late eighties. “All of a sudden it wasn’t an Irish, Italian, German family neighborhood; it started to trend younger,” Paul says. “In seventy-eight, it was a sleepy corner tavern with sixteen stools full of regulars. John Sullivan knew not to sit in Jimmy Younker’s seat, and you didn’t sit in John Rose’s seat or Greg Pfeiffer’s seat. You knew who had the gin and tonic. You knew who wanted an Old Style.”
Everybody knew your name and your drink. And if they didn’t, they would by the time you left.
‘As much of a sound as it is a place’
There’s a saying that you know you’re in Old Town if you hear the bells of St. Michael.
In 2008, Alan G. Artner wrote in the Chicago Tribune “This neighborhood is supposed to be as much a sound as a place, and it’s from the bells of St. Michael’s Church.” The church was built by German immigrants in 1869 that was one of six buildings to survive The Great Chicago Fire.
“St. Michael’s is the defining landmark of Old Town,” says St. Michael pastor, the Rev. Ted Lawson. “We attract visitors from all over the world.”
Those who step inside the cathedral see before them thin white columns that stretch a couple stories high. Their gold embellishments give way to a sky-blue ceiling and mosaic-style centerpiece. In the high altar of the church rests an Italian carving made of a single piece of wood. It depicts The Last Supper and was purchased at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893. The tall, thin stained-glass windows, rounded with Romanesque arched tops, line the church walls and share stories in every direction without spelling out a single word. Pastor Ted has served at the church for two years but was a student in Old Town in the eighties. “The neighborhood has changed significantly. It was rough when I was a student,” he remembers, citing crime along North Avenue. The church has stayed true to its mission amid the change and welcomes all, Pastor Ted says, back when it was rough and now as it fills with young people. “We have a reputation for being very inclusive and we work very hard at being welcoming,” he says. “We want people to find open doors when they come to us.”
Open doors. That’s a theme in Old Town. You could walk into the Ale House and grab a beer. Get a slab of ribs at Twin Anchors and not be bothered. Knock on the doors of St. Michael’s and take in the stories of the stained glass. Old Town may have a knack for producing celebrities and welcoming them home. But you get the same treatment if you’re an average Joe.