Where naked politicians is somehow an unambiguously good thing.
Though the moniker of “Premier Dive Bar” may be self-declared, it is hard to argue with Old Town Ale House’s status among Chicago dive bar royalty, a hub for audiences and celebrities as diverse as Second City cast members, Anthony Bourdain and Roger Ebert, who famously referred to the bar as the best he knew existed. The story of the Old Town neighborhood institution includes a fire, a naked painting of Sarah Palin, unexpected deaths and one Pete’s Butcher Shop, just to name a few twists and turns along the path.
Digging into Old Town Ale House’s history reveals a host of excellent resources that this review will not attempt to wholesale copy, particularly the very compelling Oral History of the Old Town Ale House compiled by Thrillist. All sources agree that Old Town Ale House’s life began in 1958 before succumbing to a fire in 1971. The day of the fire, the bar itself was somehow spared and too solid to break apart, so a set of regulars simply carried it out the front door of the previous location and across North Avenue to its current resting place. The day before the fire, the space was labeled Pete’s Butcher Shop. The day after, the current incarnation of Old Town Ale House was born.
Ownership has snaked through different owners and co-owners over the years, starting with original “penurious entrepreneur” E.J. Vangelder (his quoted title given to him by the bar’s own About Us page). Eventually, ownership stabilized with Art Klug and ex-wife Beatrice who oversaw the evolution of the space, matching the steady evolution of the neighborhood outside. Separate, unexpected deaths of both Klug’s in the same year resulted in another ownership shift to Tobin Mitchell before eventually landing with current owner Bruce Elliott.
Walking into Old Town Ale House feels a bit like walking into a portrait gallery that happens to serve alcohol (open until 4 AM no less), the symptom of Elliott’s prolific painting career that has spanned Old Town locals, Second City celebrities and other prominent, honorary bar dignitaries. Elliott’s painting talents were originally deployed in service of a vintage mural along the back wall of the space originally painted in 1971 featuring a cast of regular bar patrons. Expanding the mural led to additional framed photos of other regulars, quickly covering most of the bar’s interior walls.
But perhaps most interestingly, the art collection includes a series of nude images of political figures, a practice that started with a post-Republic Convention Sarah Palin piece that depicted her naked atop a bearskin rug, gun in hand. The collection has grown to include pieces that feature Newt Gingring, Kim Jong Un, Vladimir Putin (as a ballerina) and others, offering no shortage of conversation starters posted around the room. Elliott’s eccentricities extend from painting in to a multi-stage banning system for bar offenders, the first tier of which puts the patron on probation, meaning they are able to buy drinks but not shots.
The jukebox in back is far from dive bar-standard, a staple for its eclectic mix of selections that reportedly counts Bill Murray among its fans. The varied nature of the jukebox matches the varied nature of today’s clientele, a far cry from the rougher crowds from a rougher Old Town neighborhood native to the 1970s and 1980s. Nearby housing has increased in price, creating a new mix of Bourdain-fueled, tourists, semi-affluent locals and devoted regulars making the trek to Old Town Ale House from all across Chicago.
And yes, some of that sustained notoriety and basic cable exposure has resulted in higher-than-the-average-dive-bar prices on many items, but the authenticity here is intact thanks to an interior that has seen little change other than a freshly painted naked politician now and then.
Stories swirl from there with other sources covering the full gamut of Old Town Ale House alcohol-fueled antics, but the takeaway here is despite the tourist status, despite the celebrity clientele, despite the Bourdain-fueled publicity, Old Town Ale House persists as it always has, a Chicago dive bar that may be a city institution, but one that values and even enshrines its devoted regulars. That kind of longevity and devotion to its patrons certainly qualifies for “premier dive bar” status, all of it pretty impressive for a ”temporarily relocated” dive bar really making Pete’s Butcher Shop wait for its grand reopening.