The old Chicago, the one that didn't have big planters in the middle of its streets like a mall, was brought to mind yesterday by a nicely matched pair of stories— a list of the oldest restaurants in town, and a consideration of what we're losing by losing the traditional Chicago neighborhood tavern. First the list, which is the sort of thing we've occasionally thought of making ourselves, but in this case the apartment-finding site Domu (presumably with the help of some public records) did a nicely thorough job of compiling 58 restaurants at least 50 years old.
The oldest spot is Bridgeport's Schaller's Pump, which used to be considered the alternative headquarters of the Democratic party organization that ran Chicago, dating back to 1881. And not surprisingly, many of the spots on the list are on the South Side, where urban renewal/gentrification has had less effect in driving old places out of business, including soul food restaurant Daley's (1892), Hyde Park think tank Cafe Valois (1921), Lindy's Chili (1924), Chinatown 1927 original Won Kow, the last surviving restaurant listed in John Drury's 1931 guide Dining in Chicagoland, and Tufano's Vernon Park Tap (1931). But there are places all over town, from the Mag Mile (the Cape Cod Room, 1933) to Lincoln Park (Frances' Deli, 1938) to the northwest side (Marie's Pizza, 1940). There are surely omissions (Lem's Bar-B-Q, c. 1947, and Vito & Nick's, c. 1949 as a pizzeria, come to mind, and we know Dr. Peter Engler has identified some other ancient hot dog stands) but a history buff could have a good time eating his way through the early 20th century off this list.
But you'd better hurry if you want to catch that Chicago institution, the neighborhood tavern. USA Today does a piece on the decline of the old school drinking-meeting place, and exhibit A is Chicago, where it's increasingly hard to license a corner tap (but seemingly easy to put up a giant, Big 10-themed flatscreenpalooza in certain neighborhoods). USA Today laments the loss of the social cohesion and support network that such places provide, and there's surely some truth to that view of the tavern as an essential piece of the social fabric 50 or 100 years ago, but Chuck Sudo, who knows a South Side tavern or two, also argues at Chicagoist that "there's a stigma to the neighborhood tavern that is associated with Chicago's status as a hyper-segregated, provincial city. The images of former Chicago policeman Anthony Abbate pummeling bartender Karolina Obrycka four years ago serves to reinforce the stereotype of Chicago as a "stay in your own neighborhood" town."
We suspect that the neighborhood tavern was, in many ways, an historical phenomenon dependent on a number of factors which began to change in the late 20th century. Neighborhoods were ethnically homogenous, and where they weren't, the tavern was a way of escaping into your enclave's embrace. Women didn't work, and it was accepted, if not exactly liked, that your old man would disappear into a tavern at least five or six nights a week and come home hammered. The way we live, the way we raise our families, and the way we drink has all changed, to something with less color but probably better in many ways. At least the beer is certainly better.
Are Taverns Truly Disappearing in Chicago? [Chicagoist]