Chicago's most historic taverns

It is, of course, a place to get a drink but a tavern can be many things. On one level it's the sum of the collective conversations that have taken place within its walls and of the characters who have inhabited, however briefly, its bar stools and tables.

There are roughly 1,000 taverns in the city, hundreds more outside its borders. Some are brand-new, offering those suspicious concoctions called craft cocktails (at Champagne prices), and some of those are nice places and may last more than a few years. But I like taverns with some history, whether that comes in photos on the walls or the echo of past customers' conversations – places with ghosts, if you will. The best taverns have survived thanks to a delicate alchemy based on booze and other things that help level life's playing field, where you might find a CEO sitting next to a cabbie, sharing their theories on immigration reform, the Cubs or White Sox, or, always, the weather.

This week and next, we offer a sampling of local taverns that represent not only places of historically significance but joints that serve a good drink at decent prices.

Samuel Johnson, the English writer and biographer, died in 1784, around the time Jean Baptiste Pointe du Sable was becoming the first permanent resident of this city. But he hit a universal truth when he wrote, "There is nothing which has yet been contrived by man, by which so much happiness is produced as by a good tavern." Here are some of them.

Billy Goat Tavern

The Billy Goat Tavern carries a rarefied address, 430 N. Michigan Ave., though is buried in subterranean space on Hubbard Street. What is arguably the city's most famous tavern, thanks to that Cubs curse from 1945 and a John Belushi “Saturday Night Live” skit from 1978 (still funny, and linked at billygoattavern.com) has against all reason retained a neighborhood feel. Its walls are covered with hundreds of photos. Many are of Billy Sianis, the Greek immigrant who opened his first place in 1934 across Madison Street from the old Chicago Stadium. When it moved in 1964 to its current home, it attracted even more of the reporters, editors and columnists who worked for the four papers within easy stumbling distance. Some of their photos are on the walls, as are some of politicians who have visited seeking the “common folk.” With all the photos, and a virtual shrine of columnist Mike Royko, this is as close to a journalism museum as you will ever find. Owner Sam Sianis, who might long ago have retired to some pleasant island in Greece, can be found here almost any day. There are other Billy Goats here now (and one in Washington, D.C.) but the original is, in a word, original.

The Green Mill

The Green Mill, 4802 N. Broadway (greenmilljazz.com) is the oldest nightclub in Chicago operating under the same name. It opened in 1907 as Pop Morse's Roadhouse, and a few years later became Green Mill Gardens. There was once a hitching post outside for people to tie their horses, and everybody came here, at first to partake of such lavish delights as dancing girls, Champagne fountains and ballrooms. When Prohibition arrived in 1919, the place became a popular speak-easy. One of the owners was that Al Capone associate, “Machine Gun” Jack McGurn, who was not a nice fellow. When singer Joe E. Lewis dared to leave the Mill for another club, McGurn sliced off part of Lewis' tongue. Undaunted but unable to sing, Lewis became a successful comedian and this was one on his jokes: “A man is never drunk if he can lay on the floor without holding on.” Owner Dave Jemilo feels and appreciates the history and, in fashioning one of the city's great music performance spaces, has maintained a sense of style in both decor and down-to-earth sensibilities of the staff. It's great at any hour, but especially Sunday nights when Marc Smith's Uptown Poetry Slam sizzles.

Twin Anchors

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There is a lot of Frank Sinatra on the jukebox at Twin Anchors, 1655 N. Sedgwick Ave. (twinanchorsribs.com) and that's is because there used to be a lot of Frank Sinatra in this place. He came for the ribs during the 1960s and in later years often had them sent to whatever city in which he was singing. This place started its life in 1910 as a tavern, then became a speak-easy called, charmingly, Tante Lee Soft Drinks. When Prohibition ended, it was bought by Bob Walters and Herb Eldean, both members of the Chicago Yacht Club. They gave it its nautical name and decor and transformed it into the cozy bar/restaurant it is today, mostly because Eldean's wife liked to cook. It was bought in 1978 by Philip Tuzi, and now his son, Paul, and daughters Mary Kay Tuzi and Gina Manrique tend to customers and to the legacy. They love to tell and hear stories about the Old Town neighborhood and about their place; many like hearing about the filming of the 1999 movie “Return to Me,” directed by longtime customer Bonnie Hunt. The ribs have stayed the same, the service is still friendly (even sometimes perky) and the place remains a classic neighborhood joint.

Meier's Tavern

Meier's Tavern, 235 E Lake Ave. in Glenview (meierstavern.com) is one of the oldest oases in the suburbs. It had been a farmhouse turned speak-easy, surrounded by open fields, when it was bought by the Meier family in 1932, and it opened the next year serving 10-cent beer, 15-cent burgers and offering pony rides for the kids. It has ever been a family-friendly spot. Its parking lot, where on any day or night, you'll find shiny Jaguars next to beat-up pickups, attests to the diversity of the diners and drinkers inside. When it opened it was like a lot of other roadhouses that dotted the suburbs. But most have vanished, replaced by burger-chicken-pizza franchises. Meier's now seems almost a curiosity, but a glorious one. Great burgers and hush puppies, decent drinks and photos and trophies all around, it is divided into three areas and also functions as a package liquor operation. People and families are treated with equal efficiency and charm. With its wooden-beamed interior, checkered tablecloths and curtains on the windows, the place exudes a timelessness that appeals to such regular guys as Billy Petersen of “CSI” fame, who often stops here when home to visit pals and relatives.

Schaller's Pump

Schaller's Pump, 3714 S. Halsted St., is an ancient, politically and White Sox-connected place. Directly across the street from the 11th Ward Democratic headquarters, it is a short walk from the former home of Richard J. Daley and a few blocks from...it's only right to keep calling the ballpark Comiskey. It's not fancy and wears its age, roughly 134 years, well. Inside is the lingering memory of deals hatched, promises made and careers broken. Tourists drop in now and then, as if visiting a shrine. But there is no aren't-we-famous-so-how-about-buying-a-picture-of-a-mayor-for-$10? pretension here. Almost without argument the oldest continuously running tavern in town, it's been serving the Bridgeport neighborhood good food and decent drinks since 1881. It had a lot of different names until being bought by George Schaller near the end of Prohibition, which was when it also took “Pump” as part of its name because of the brewery next door pumping beer directly into the tavern. It's still in the family and just last week, midafternoon, 91-year-old patriarch Jack Schaller dropped in from his upstairs apartment. He hasn't touched a drop he says in more than a quarter-century, but he knows better than almost anybody that a good tavern is about a lot more than just booze.

Andy's Jazz Club

Andy's Jazz Club, 11 E Hubbard St, was founded as “Andy's 11 E. Lounge” in 1951 by Andy Rizzuto. A group of investors bought the property in 1975, changing its name to “Andy's”. The club is one of the city's most prominent jazz venues.

In 1977 jazz promoters Penny Tyler and John Defauw began producing midday jazz sessions at Andy's, which was later expanded to include performances later in the day with sets at 5pm and 9pm. The 5pm performance – known as “Jazz at Five” – has since become a Chicago tradition.

Performers at the club have included Larry Coryell, Franz Jackson, Von Freeman, and Joey DeFrancesco.

Redhead Piano Bar

A swinging crowd of veteran nightclubbers hovers around the piano, occasionally helping weekend favorite Kenny Phelps sing “Sweet Caroline,” a Jerry Lee Lewis medley and Phil Collins' “Take a Look at Me Now.” Besides the SRO piano-side crowd, the next best seats are around the rectangular bar that dominates the dimly lit main room, its walls littered with old playbills, music books and photos of movie stars and lounge singers. The Redhead attracts a core of upscale regulars, most of them nattily dressed and able to afford the $360 for a bottle of Cuvee Perignon Rose. Prime people-watching inside this place, and they'll probably be watching you, too.

16 W. Ontario St.,

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