July 16, 2015

Chicago's Southport Lanes

Southport Lanes exterior

photo by: Southport Lanes

Southport Lanes sits less than a mile from Wrigley Field on Chicago's North Side.

If this blog is any indication, the bar enthusiast of today exists in a world of nearly boundless choice. Trendy speakeasies, prim and proper cocktail lounges, backyard biergartens, and the deep confines of dives beckon in an endless siren song of booze-sodden bon humour.

But if you ask me, there’s nothing better than a corner bar where the beer is cold, the bartender knows your name, and you call the next game of pool by stacking your quarters on the edge of the table.

And while sanctuaries like this have largely gone the way of the affordable apartment in places like New York and D.C., Chicago may still be the capital of the genre.

If you’re looking for an example, Southport Lanes (SPL) is a good place to start.
Southport Lanes bar

photo by: Southport Lanes

Southport Lanes maintains the classic, Chicago corner bar feel.

First things first: The neighborhood ain’t what it used to be. Generally speaking, the folks that live around SPL no longer work the mills down the road. Like a lot of the North Side of Chicago, the neighborhood is solidly upper middle class. But the corner bar is still a big part of the culture here.

The bar -- less than a mile from Wrigley Field -- was built by the Schlitz Brewing Company around the turn of the 20th century, just when they were passing Pabst as the country’s largest brewer. Back then, it was called The Nook. The building still bears the Schlitz logo on its facade. It’s one of just a few the company built in Chicago that still serve their original purpose.

Southport Lanes bowling lanes

photo by: Southport Lanes

Southport Lanes is one of the last places in the country that uses pin boys to manually set bowling pins.

In 1922, four bowling lanes were installed and the name was changed accordingly. The lanes, and the manual labor it takes to set them, remain today. It’s one of the last places in the country where pin boys perform the dangerous work of setting pins by hand. When they say “Stop bowling if you see legs!” they mean it.

During Prohibition, the second floor of the building was a brothel, and with that kind of nefarious behavior, it’s not hard to imagine it as a speakeasy too. In fact, the dumbwaiter that swung refreshments up to “couples” is still there. Rumor also has it that Chicago mayor Anton Cermak held a weekly poker game in one of the bar’s secret rooms before he was assassinated in ‘33.

Southport Lanes billiards

photo by: Southport Lanes

The billiards room used to host an illegal gambling operation with direct lines to tracks around the country.

The end of Prohibition didn’t end the mischief at SPL. Eventually, an addition (now the billiards room) held an illegal gambling service with direct lines to tracks around the country.

The bar kept on in quiet perfection until 1991 when it sold to the current owners who cleaned it up a bit, restored its wooden features, and added windows in the front of the building. Other than that, the place is about the same as it ever was, right down to the Schlitz.

Sounds perfect to me.

Location: 3325 N. Southport Ave., Chicago, IL 60657

Hours: Monday – Thursday 4 p.m. – 2 a.m.; Friday: 12 p.m. – 2 a.m.; Saturday: 12 p.m. – 3 a.m.; Sunday 12 p.m. – 1:30 a.m.

You’re Having: A Schlitz

Pro Tip: If your pin boy has been attentive, roll a fiver up in the ball’s finger hole for him on your final frame.

Best Yelp Review: "You've gotta love this place. It's maintained that classic Chicago atmosphere and offers a solid spot for any size group or just a date."

David Weible was the content specialist at the National Trust, previously with Preservation and Outside magazines. His interest in historic preservation was inspired by the ‘20s-era architecture, streetcar neighborhoods, and bars of his hometown of Cleveland.

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