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Are Taverns Truly Disappearing In Chicago?

By Chuck Sudo in Food on Feb 13, 2012 10:15PM

Bernice's Tavern in Bridgeport has gone through some changes in recent years, but it's still a tavern. (Chuck Sudo/Chicagoist)

USA Today has an interesting article on the decline of the neighborhood tavern across the country, as gentrification, the economy, and city ordinances make it harder to maintain a liquor license for older bars and nigh impossible for new establishments.

Chicago plays a central role in Judy Keen's report. Keen spoke with Simon's Tavern owner Scott Martin and Sean Parnell of the Chicago Bar Project. Both lament the decline in the neighborhood tavern, but Parnell adds that the classic taverns — the ones that serve a cheap beer and a shot and everyone is on a first-name basis — are still around. One just needs to look for them.

Chicago serves as the prime example of the neighborhood tavern's decline in Keen's story. As late as 1990, Chicago had 3,300 standalone tavern licenses; today that number is at 1,200. It isn't impossible to obtain a tavern license in Chicago, but the hoops prospective tavern owners need to jump through, such as public hearings and dry precincts that may be as small as a couple of blocks, make the process all but unbearable except for the most dedicated. A prime example of this is Weegee's Lounge.

Changing tastes have also contributed to the decline of the neighborhood tavern. Time was when people were happy with a bottle of Old Style and maybe an amaretto sour as a cocktail. the rise in craft beers and the cocktail renaissance have led many establishments, to expand their offerings to cater to changing neighborhood demographics. Simon's is an example of this. Another is Maria's in Bridgeport, which has transformed from the classic "old guy" bar into one of the best beer bars in the city.

There are still more than enough classic taverns for the non-fussy drinker who wants to get their Old School Chicago on. The Corner (2224 N. Leavitt) has become a home away from a few Chicagoist staffers. Bernice's Tavern (3238 S. Halsted) has made some changes to make it easier for passers-by to know it's a bar. But you still have to be buzzed in; some of our neighbors still call it "The Secret Bar."

Finally, 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 remember the tavern attached next to an Armanetti liquors and the corner tavern in the Ukrainian Village as artifacts of a Chicago that's nice to wax nostalgic for from time to time. But things also change and places like Maria's. Weegee's and Simon's, in their own way, are laying the foundation for the neighborhood joints of tomorrow.