March 3, 2016

The Green Mill in Chicago

The outside of the Green Mill on N. Broadway St. in Chicago's Uptown neighborhood.

photo by: Thomas Hawk, Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0

The Green Mill on North Broadway Street in Chicago's Uptown neighborhood.

The mob and jazz history at Chicago’s Green Mill Cocktail Lounge is the stuff of legend, but from the outside, you’d never guess how much character it truly holds. Patrons can still sit in the same booth once frequented by Al Capone and his gang—while carefully watching both entrances, of course.

Located on the city’s North Broadway Street, the spot originated as Pop Morse’s Roadhouse in 1907, a bar and beer garden catering to mourners spilling from the nearby Graceland and Saint Boniface cemeteries. In 1910, the establishment became the Green Mill Gardens under the ownership of real estate developer Tom Chamales, who wanted to allude to Paris’s Moulin Rouge (Red Mill) but avoid association with a nearby red light district.

“The Mill’s Jazz Age pedigree has no equal in Chicago,” wrote Patrick Sisson in the Chicago Reader in 2014. Jack “Machine Gun” McGurn, one of Capone’s henchmen, was allegedly a partial owner of the bar during its Prohibition-era speakeasy days, and an altercation between McGurn and entertainer Joe E. Lewis in which McGurn supposedly slashed Lewis’s throat to prevent him from taking a gig at a rival club would later inspire the Frank Sinatra movie The Joker Is Wild. Billie Holliday, Al Jolson, and cabaret performer Texas Guinan all performed there regularly.

Al Capone's supposed favorite booth at the Green Mill.

photo by: Tom Gill, Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0

The booth allegedly favored by Al Capone and his gang.

In the 1960s, after changing hands several times, the Green Mill became a haven for the down-and-out in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood. In 1986, Dave Jemilo purchased the Mill from former owner Steve Brend (who had worked at the bar since 1938 and owned it since 1960),and took to cleaning and restoring it.

“It was a dump. It was all falling apart,” Jemilo says of the bar's condition at the time of purchase. He refinished the wooden bar, reupholstered booths, refurbished picture frames and light fixtures, updated the plumbing and electrical systems, and added a bigger stage and a dance floor. He also reinstated regular jazz performances at the establishment, charging $1 per night five nights a week and $2 on Saturdays for entrance.

29 years later, the Green Mill hosts everyone from local Chicago jazz acts to internationally famous artists. (“I’m picking up Sheila Jordan at the airport tomorrow,” Jemilo adds.) It’s also home to the Uptown Poetry Slam, a Sunday evening tradition that’s been going for as long as Jemilo has owned the building.

Interior of the Green Mill Cocktail Lounge in Chicago's Uptown neighborhood.

photo by: Ella, Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0

Dave Jemilo cleaned the Green Mill's original picture frames as part of his 1986 restoration.

While things at the Mill haven’t changed too much since Jemilo's initial restoration, the surrounding Uptown neighborhood has. “There’s a Starbucks across the street on the corner, and that’s weird,” he says. “There’s nice restaurants and other bars that you’re not afraid to go into. It’s just safer, I guess.”

He also says that he feels a sense of responsibility to the Mill’s long history. “That’s why I restored things and didn’t change things,” he says. “I haven’t done anything to ruin the joint, you know what I’m saying? Old-timers that used to go in the 40’s and 50’s say, ‘Wow, this is just how it used to be.’”

If you can't make it to the Mill in person, check out the bar's cameos in movies such as High Fidelity, Prelude to a Kiss, and The Break-Up. But if you happen to be in Chicago and are looking to take your best guy or gal out for a night on the town, here are a few things to know before you go:

Location: 4802 N. Broadway St., Chicago, IL 60640

Hours: Open nightly, 12 p.m.-4 a.m. (and 5 a.m. on Saturdays).

You're having: In terms of libations, the Green Mill offers everything from martinis to Schlitz tallboys. (Jemilo prefers the taste of Schlitz to that of PBR.)

Best Yelp review: "Come on a Thursday night and you will find yourself stepping off the streets of contemporary Chicago and into a big band-era speakeasy filled with an eclectic mix of young and old patrons swing dancing to the sounds of a brass band."

Katherine Flynn is a former assistant editor at Preservation magazine. She enjoys coffee, record stores, and uncovering the stories behind historic places.

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