It’s June in Chicago and that reminds me of one thing: the Old Town Art Fair. I grew up in Old Town during the time when it was less than lucrative to be there. The neighborhood was still recovering from the 60s and very much a working-class area. My parents, like most immigrants, worked hard to support their family…and they played hard when they could. They worked on Wells St. and as they walked home, my dad would often find his way to a tavern on North Ave. called Sonny’s. This was the time when you could write personal checks to cover your tab. Mom wasn’t too happy when she would get those canceled checks. Oops. I like that story (one of many) because it reminds me of how my parents were fun people – they had a love for life that they undoubtedly passed on to me and my brother and sisters. It was all about family and about having big parties – a philosophy I live by today. The biggest party in town was always the Old Town Art Fair. A giant street fair with great art and food, the OTAF was and still is an Old Town tradition. Saloons and the Old Town Art Fair: that’s my June and that’s my family and no other tavern in town screams quintessential Old Town than the Old Town Ale House.
A German immigrant named Otto Glass owned a saloon in this building in 1910. In 1917 he sold it to Otto Nehaus whom later sold it to Joseph Moll so that he could start his butcher shop. And while The Old Town Ale House set up shop here in 1971, its history as a tavern goes back to 1958. The original bar was located just across the street, but when the bar caught fire, they needed to temporarily move into the vacant space at 219 W. North Ave. That temporary move became permanent.
The intersection of North & Wells, or what I like to refer to as the “Haight-Ashbury of Chicago”, served as the haven for the counter culture in the 1960s. Hippies, anti-war activists, musicians, and comedians mingled in and out of taverns throughout Old Town. And The Old Town Ale House played a central role in the time and the culture. The current owners are ever-present and have had a major impact on its history. From the historic murals and paintings that cover its walls (check out naked Sarah Palin and Rod Blagojevich), to the strict rules of cash only or no music past 1980 on the jukebox, The Ale House (as regulars refer to it), is a sacred little place that lets you just be and teleports you back to 1968 where you swear you can faintly hear Steve Goodman singing City of New Orleans. The story goes that Steve Goodman, a local folk fav (hey, he also wrote Go Cubs Go!) played a little ditty at the Ale House for someone named Arlo Guthrie. Arlo didn’t care much for the local artist, but after a few beers and the promise of another, he let him play. Arlo was so inspired by the tune that he asked Steve to let him record it…he said yes. The tune was City of New Orleans and it went on to be Arlo Gurthrie’s greatest hit. And it all went down at the Ale House – although some folks will argue it happened at the Earl of Old Town or the Quiet Knight (two other Old Town folk venues).
History surrounds you here and it lives and is recorded in the paintings that Bruce, one of the owners, paints on a continual basis. The oldest painting is the original mural from the east wall and features regulars from times past. The back area features the Crazy Bitch wall and a few select paintings focus on the real and dreamy perceptions of interactions between staff and regulars. Steamy. Some people call the art at the Old Town Ale House a bit pornographic, but if you knew the place and the patrons, it seems just right. Keep perusing the walls – you’ll recognize the people featured in the portraits. They are some famous and not so famous regulars at one time or another. Former Second City performers like Dan Akroyd, John Candy, and Chris Farley all grabbed frequent night caps after a show. And if you look around the bar, I’ll betcha you see some of those faces up above. Please tell Anne Marie and Reuben I sent ya…one of ‘em owes me a drink.
The Ale House is where the 1960s in Chicago lives on. It’s the place where I imagine my dad grabbing a cold brew after a long, hard day’s work. It’s a place and a neighborhood that has shaped our city and my personal life. It’s a place that I dreamed of being when I finally turned 21. It’s the place that I always want to take my dad on Father’s Day. And it’s the place I always have to visit during the Old Town Art Fair. This is Chicago and it is truly my Chicago. Thanks, Dad.