Drink specials, food specials, bingo, poker, what's not to like?
Olde Towne Inn in Chicago suburb Elgin is a sneaky dive bar, a spot that looks like an unassuming home converted into a bar at the interchange of two prime thoroughfares. But hidden behind the pale brown siding and bright green sign is Elgin’s oldest bar & grill (so says that same green and yellow sign), a local institution founded as a barbecue restaurant in 1927 that survived Prohibition to begin offering alcohol after Prohibition’s repeal in 1933. The decades have rolled quickly since then, but Olde Towne Inn’s status as Elgin community hub remains intact today.
The legal name of the Elgin dive bar may be Olde Towne Inn, but this is spiritually Smitty’s, founded by namesake William “Smitty” Schmitz in 1927. After a stint as Southside Annie’s, the space took on its current name of Olde Towne Inn and was subsequently sold to current owner Patsy Maple in 2015. In honor of the bar’s 90th anniversary, the word “Smitty’s” was added back to the sign affixed to the building, creating the combined name of Smitty’s Olde Towne Inn, all of it done with the blessing of Schmitz’s grandson, John Smitz, who played a role in the 90th anniversary festivities.
But as interesting as the name of the space may be, the original features inside set it apart, including the original bar, classic single pane windows and arches that today separate the two rooms of the bar but once served as garage doors to a single room space. The curved bar that dominates Olde Towne Inn’s front room is the centerpiece of the space’s preservation, faded pictures showing the clear consistency between the bar as it stood in 1927 and the one that exists today with little if any change brought on by the decades that followed its construction.
But maybe the most endearing aspect of Olde Towne Inn is its constant stream of community-building events that ranges from free nacho bars during football games to free poker nights to outdoor movie screenings that take advantage of the large parking lot behind the building. Bing on Tuesdays, poker on Thursdays, karaoke every weekend, food specials every week, the list goes on and on, the clear sign of a dive bar putting in the effort to create communal moments and new reasons to visit in a way that builds up familiar regulars and repeat visitors. In a nod to Smitty’s 1927 roots, weekend barbecues take place on a large smoker stationed out back.
All of that work contributes to the welcoming vibe felt upon setting foot inside the space, which for those parking in the lot behind the building means walking through a part outdoor, part indoor pool room porch hybrid that extends off of the main structure. String lights and drink ledges make this a comfortable alcove for a game of pool or for overflow seating during one of the site’s many parking lot-related events that include move nights but also extend into car shows and other occasions.
During the transition to Maple’s ownership, a series of renovations took place to preserve as many original elements as possible while positioning the structure for long-term viability. Those moves included very visible elements like fresh flooring, a handful of new windows and new furnishings. The porch area was also constructed and a new HVAC system installed in addition to kitchen updates that have unlocked new offerings. Even for those not drinking, the food specials alone are worth a visit to Olde Towne Inn, some specials going as low as $1 hamburger night or sandwich and soup combos in the neighborhood of $5.
For a dive bar with Olde Towne Inn’s history, balancing the polish of renovations with the soul of a timeless space is difficult. The space today does exactly that, a secondary space positioned as a surprisingly large seating area with modern bar elements like digital dart boards and Chicago-licensed gaming machines made available. But a little context for the space opens up a new level of appreciation, this area reclaimed from what was once a garage attached to the main structure, two arches that serve today as interior transitions once used as garage doors.
Through those arches, the original bar curves around the remaining space, offering that classic dive bar community feeling created by basically forcing people to look at each other while they drink. On this reviewer’s visit, that meant joining a group conversation almost seamlessly, jumping in on local and non-local topics, everything friendly, everything communal, a testament to the community built by Olde Towne Inn. Liquor bottles sit on a small island in the center of the horseshoe bar, a handful of beer taps available as well.
Decorations mix fresh signs with faded photos, a few elements of Smitty’s days gone by visible in places, including a handful of black and white photos above the transition to a third, back area that houses additional gaming machines. A handful of neon beer signs mingle with novelty signs, all of it dispersed in a measured deliberate way rather than the clutter that sometimes characterizes dive bar décor.
Simply put, it would be difficult to find a more community-focused, welcoming neighborhood dive bar than Olde Towne Inn, a fact made all the more impressive by the pre-Prohibition history found in its structure. Renovations have polished up some previously rough edges, but the bar, the arches, the windows, they all let the bones of this 1927 original shine through, the kind of balance that is hard to achieve but done exceedingly well by this Elgin staple rightfully labeled a community institution.