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The Obscure History Of How Chicago's Favorite Bars Got Their Names

By Chicagoist_Guest in Food on Jul 19, 2016 3:57PM

One half of the famous Delilah's sign. Photo via Instagram.

By Madeline Hester

Chicago has plenty of bars named after people, and I bet you never really think, when you're referring to them (“Let’s go to Norm’s! Meet me at Maria’s! Hey, I lost my virginity at Dennis’ Place!”) that their might be an actual person involved. When a bar is actually named after someone, all formalities seem immediately erased. These places become friends. It’s as if the namesake is inviting me into their home, pouring me a drink, letting me use their toilet (and also letting me give them money).

But who is this host? The answer is often more than simply the bartender or owner—although if it is, they too have a story to tell. If the walls could talk, what would they say? I set out to knock on the walls of Chicago’s most personable bars and give them the mic.

Delilah’s Chicago

“I wanted the bar to have a literary connection. Delilah is the first femme fatale in Western literature,” Mike Miller, owner of Delilah's (and English major), told Chicagoist. According to the Book of Judges, Delilah, a prostitute, convinced Samson to tell her the secret of his God-given strength (spoiler: his golden locks). She then betrayed him by selling his weakness to the Philistines which led to Samson’s capture and downfall.

However, Miller believes she is more than just a temptress, “Delilah has an air of mystery. She is a Power Woman.” Take the double-sided sign outside the bar: on one side, a blonde beauty with closed eyes, the other side a face suspiciously close to the Evil Queen from Snow White. Are they both Delilah? “They were painted by a local artist.” An air of mystery indeed! Miller notes that it’s Samson himself who is responsible for his undoing; she was the temptation, yes, but he willingly fell on his sword. A dark analogy for bar culture itself? Let’s say Delilah will put the beer in front of you but she won’t make you drink it (just pay for it). I asked if Delilah were real, where would she sit, what would she order? “Probably at the end of the bar, drinking an old-fashioned.” An old-fashioned at Delilah’s costs around $6.

Delilah's is located at 2771 N. Lincoln Ave.

The exterior of Guthrie's. Photo via Facebook.

Guthrie’s Tavern

The name "Guthrie" belongs to J. B. Guthrie, a real estate developer in Lakeview from the late 1800s. Did he own the bar? No. Did he develop the bar? Nope. Did he ever drink at the bar? He was dead long before it opened. Is he, in any way shape or form related to the bar? A fictional depiction of him is painted on the sign outdoors.

Steve Leith, owner, recalls “When I bought the bar I went down to the Lake View Historical Society and just picked out a name I liked.” I asked Leith for further facts about J. B. but, according to him, “I’ve never thought about it this much.” After some prompting, he used his imagination to paint a day in the life of the namesake: after a day of developing, J.B. Guthrie comes into his local tavern. It’s been a long day and air conditioning doesn’t exist. He eats pickled hard boiled eggs from a jar and a roast beef sandwich. “The kind of stuff they had back then.” Guthrie drinks a draft beer. Where does he sit? “At the bar.”

Alright, maybe I was making Leith think too hard about someone he’s never met. But it wasn’t like he’s never thought about him at all. That sign outside of fictional J. B. Guthrie? Painted by Leith himself. “I was taking a painting class and was thinking of Guthrie when I painted it. It’s not the real one but it’s the Guthrie I think of.” It’s a beautiful painting. The only thing missing is those pickled hardboiled eggs.

Guthrie's is located at 1300 W. Addison St.

Simon’s Tavern

Simon Lundberg was an immigrant from Sweden who came to America after WWI. He moved to Colorado, got married, and built railroads. In 1922, he came to Chicago because there was a rumor running through the Rockies that Swedes were flocking to Chicago.

Simon first opened the Burwood Food Shop in Andersonville, a neighborhood ripe with Swedes at the time. One day some shady guys came in, closed the door, and ordered coffee. They then took out a bottle filled with…whiskey! (But whiskey was illegal back then!) Simon enjoyed it. The shady men (rhymes with shmafia) proposed to supply him with whiskey if he let them drink there. Sounds like a good deal—what could go wrong? Apparently, nothing!

In 1926, Simon bought a grocery store at the current address of the bar. He opened a bar in the basement called the NN Club (No Name Club). And when Prohibition was repealed in 1933, Simon conveniently had a full bar ready to go for public use. He called it Simon’s and poured glasses of Akvavit for over 60 years with his son, until current owner Scott Martin took over.

It’s easy to see the passion Scott has for carrying on the legacy of Simon. And there's more: In 1933, the biggest passenger ship in France was built: the S. S. Normandie. Since many customers couldn’t afford tickets, Simon designed his bar to make people feel like they were on an expensive ship, without the hefty price tag, by etching the SS Norm on the mirror, below the flags, and on the bar itself.

Simon's is located at 5210 N. Clark St.

Martin's Tavern, via Facebook.

Martin’s Corner

The history of Martin’s is pretty straightforward, much like owner Robert Martin, who gave me a brief timeline of the bar.

Martin’s is a family-owned business and Martin is the last name of the family. The bar was started in 1951 by Richard and Robert Martin (Robert Jr.’s grandfather and father). They also tended bar. In 1985, Robert took over and expanded the bar to a full dining menu. He also works alongside his two sisters Cynthia and Karen.

So is there an heir to the Martin kingdom? Perhaps even a jaded sibling who will do whatever it takes—even kill his own brother and nephew—to be king, but unbeknownst to him, his nephew survives and is raised by a hedgehog and meerkat?

“We are just planning on keeping it all within the family,” Robert told us. Alright, fine, no Disney drama here. But that’s fair. Martin’s is a family and community bar. Located by St. Paul’s Church in Pilsen, Martin’s has been a fixture for the neighborhood for over 65 years and if the Martins keep populating, why not 65 more?

Martin's is located at 2058 W. 22nd Pl.

We've got the hidden history of more Chicago bar names coming soon, including Moe’s Tavern, Matilda’s and Emmit’s Irish Pub. Have any bars you'd like to know more about? Let us know in the comments.