Why Did So Many Chicago Bars Disappear? (2023)

By Jake Smith

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Why Did So Many Chicago Bars Disappear? (1)

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By Jake Smith

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Editor’s note: Patrick McBriarty posed this question to Curious City in 2015. We learned after publication that he had co-conducted five paid tours with one of our sources in this story, Liz Garibay, in the spring of 2016 through the fall of 2017. They have not conducted tours together since then.

Patrick McBriarty likes to try different bars in Chicago. So he was disappointed when he drove by Schaller’s Pump in Bridgeport, one of the oldest bars in the city, and saw it had closed. But Patrick says he’s gotten used to seeing these neighborhood taverns shut their doors.

“Some of the favorite bars that I had gone to in the past are not around,” he says.

He’s heard things used to be different — that there was once a bar or tavern on every corner in Chicago. But that’s clearly no longer the case, so he asked Curious City:

What happened to all the bars in Chicago?

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Why Did So Many Chicago Bars Disappear? (3)

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In the early 1900s, Chicago had more than 8,000 saloons (an old-fashioned version of the modern tavern) — more than nine times the number today. Why they disappeared has to do with the city’s shifting demographics, a change in attitudes towards public drinking and the lasting influence of a Chicago political institution: the Daley family.

1890–1919: A bar on (nearly) every corner

There was never actually a bar on every corner of the city, as Patrick heard. However, from the 1890s through the 1910s, the first heyday of Chicago taverns, there was definitely no shortage of barrooms.

At its peak in 1905, the city counted 8,097 saloons, or one saloon for every 239 residents.

But according to Liz Garibay, a historian who studies the role of alcohol in Chicago history, these saloons weren’t just watering holes. They were major social hubs, where people could make friends or find a job, and bartenders would cash paychecks and receive mail for their regular customers. Furthermore, many saloons catered to the predominant ethnic group in their neighborhood, making them critical spaces for new immigrants who were coming to Chicago around this time, and who often didn’t speak English.

Why Did So Many Chicago Bars Disappear? (4)

“At the end of the day, you want to be able to go to a bar where people speak like you, look like you, understand you,” Garibay says.

It was also relatively easy to open a new tavern: Liquor licenses were widely available, and a saloon-keeper needed to invest very little money because breweries would usually provide saloon-keepers with the storefront, alcohol, glassware, and furniture they needed.

But as these saloons were flourishing, the temperance movement, a social movement that advocated against the consumption of alcohol, was picking up momentum. In January 1920, Prohibition went into effect, banning the production, transport and sale of alcohol nationwide.

“We raised the saloon as a pet and then gave it the chloroform,” wrote Chicago journalist George Ade. But Chicago’s bar scene would come roaring back to life soon enough.

1933–1955: Bars boom again after Prohibition

When Prohibition was repealed in 1933, Chicagoans wasted no time opening up taverns and going out to drink.

“There are stories of people going to breweries and hanging outside and shaking the fences,” Garibay says.

Why Did So Many Chicago Bars Disappear? (5)

More than 5,000 taverns had set up shop in Chicago by the end of 1933. That number continued to increase throughout much of the ’30s and ’40s.

Enthusiasm for legal drinking after Prohibition helped drive this second boom in taverns, as did the growth of Chicago’s population and industrial sector throughout the 1940s.

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Many new bars at this time catered to Chicago’s working class. One famously boozy area was the strip of Ashland Avenue between Pershing Road and 47th Street, on the western edge of the Union Stockyards. This stretch, lined with tavern after tavern, was known as “Whiskey Row.”

Stanley Kurek opened Stanley’s Tavern on Whiskey Row in 1935. His daughter, Wanda Kurek, now 95, remembers helping her parents clean the bar every morning as a child.

“It opened at seven in the morning and used to close at two in the evening, seven days a week,” she says.

The stockyards employed thousands of men, who kept Stanley’s and nearby bars flowing with customers all day long.

“There were three shifts in the stockyards,” Kurek says. “So at seven o’clock in the morning, the guys were leaving work because the others were starting.”

Why Did So Many Chicago Bars Disappear? (6)

“There was enough people for everybody,” she says.

But this second heyday of Chicago taverns would not last.

1955–1989: Bars begin to shut their doors

In the ’50s, blue-collar industries like meat-packing began leaving Chicago. And fewer workers meant fewer customers for places like Stanley’s.

“Everything just demolished after the stockyards moved out,” Kurek says.

The city’s population was also beginning to shrink as people flocked to the suburbs. Meanwhile, refrigeration and air conditioning meant you could have a cold beer without having to go to the corner bar. Together, these factors dried up the customer base for many taverns across Chicago, especially in working-class areas. Today Stanley’s is the only old bar on Whiskey Row that’s still open.

Politics also figured heavily into the decline of Chicago taverns.

When Richard J. Daley was elected mayor in 1955, he sought to promote a law-and-order image. Among other things, that meant getting rid of any taverns that he believed were promoting drugs, prostitution or violence.

“When he saw some seedier places, even in his own neighborhood of Bridgeport, he automatically assumed that they might be all like that,” Garibay says. “And so you had to sort of nip that in the bud.”

In Daley’s 21 years as mayor, he revoked the liquor licenses of hundreds of bars.

Why Did So Many Chicago Bars Disappear? (7)

By the time his son Richard M Daley was elected in 1989, there were roughly half as many taverns as there had been in the ’40s. Still, the second Daley shared his father’s concern that certain taverns could bring down neighborhoods.

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“It was all about just improving the quality of life,” says someone who worked closely with Daley who spoke to WBEZ on the condition of anonymity. “If you want people to live in a neighborhood, it can’t be a neighborhood with problematic businesses. That’s just the way he thought.”

It became much harder to maintain a tavern license under the second Mayor Daley. His liquor commissioner referred to the administration’s policy as a “crackdown.” The city developed a formal program to conduct stings where the police would send minors into bars. Owners who served them alcohol would have their liquor licenses suspended.

The city also printed brochures, held public meetings and produced a public access TV program called “Bad Liquor Establishments: What You Can Do!” with the goal of instructing residents how they could vote to ban alcohol sales in their precincts. Throughout the ’90s and 2000s, dozens of precincts across the city successfully did so. Bar and liquor store owners pushed back against these policies in court with limited results.

1989-today: Not everyone wants a neighborhood bar

Some of the most ambitious efforts to “dry out” precincts occurred on the city’s South Side, and they came directly from residents. Rev. James Meeks, a pastor and later Illinois state senator, led a successful drive to dry up dozens of precincts in the Roseland neighborhood in 1998, hoping to attract new businesses and remedy what he saw as an excess of liquor establishments. While Meeks was mainly concerned with liquor stores, many taverns also had to close as a result of the dry votes.

As old bars shuttered, the city made sure that new bars would not spring up in their place. In 1989, City Council began allowing aldermen to declare a moratorium on new liquor licenses being issued in their wards. Another ordinance that year required that neighbors be notified, and instructed on how to file an objection, whenever someone applied for a tavern license.

“It was very, very difficult to get a new liquor license because of the new rules,” says Mike Macharello, who opened the nightclub Circuit in the Boystown neighborhood in the 1990s.

When a local community group learned that he had applied for a liquor license, Macharello says they filed a complaint with the city arguing that having another bar in the area would bring down their quality of life. He had to hire a lawyer and spend two years fighting before he received a liquor license.

A map showing dry precincts and liquor moratoriums on taverns as of 2012. A dry precinct is a precinct where the sale of alcohol is banned. A moratorium on taverns means that new bars can not obtain a liquor license (though existing bars may renew theirs).

By the time Richard M. Daley left office in 2011, the number of bars had plummeted to 1,100. Since then, it has continued to drop, to around 870 today.

While Garibay doesn’t think the neighborhood bar will ever disappear completely, she believes that something is lost when the old corner taverns shutter.

“They’re just important contributors to what a real neighborhood was supposed to feel like,” she says.

More about our questioner

Why Did So Many Chicago Bars Disappear? (8)

Patrick McBriarty is a writer and co-creator of the podcast Windy City Historians. As a former business consultant, he can see why people would be concerned about having too many taverns in their neighborhoods. But he says the policies enacted by the Daleys were “kind of an unfair way to crack down on it.”

Despite the decline, Patrick is confident that Chicagoans will always have places to socialize over drinks — “And maybe it’s not gonna be the corner bar.”

Patrick is also the author of Chicago River Bridges and co-producer of the documentary Chicago Drawbridges. He can confirm another urban myth: The first bridge in Chicago was indeed built by a tavern owner looking to help customers reach his bar.

Special thanks to Patrick Reardon for sharing liquor license data.

(Video) Chicago LGBTQ+ and gay bars declining in number, study shows

Jake Smith writes and reports in Chicago. Follow him at @JakeJeromeSmith.


How many bars are in Chicago? ›

Daley left office in 2011, the number of bars had plummeted to 1,100. Since then, it has continued to drop, to around 870 today.

How many taverns are in Chicago? ›

There are roughly 1,000 taverns in the city, hundreds more outside its borders.

Does Chicago have good bars? ›

Bars are roaring once again in Chicago, a city with rich tavern history where a patron sipping a can of Old Style on Friday can be seen sipping a complex cocktail with an infused spirit on Saturday. Tavern culture is one of many components that makes Chicago unique.

Why do people go to bars? ›

They provide you a place to imbibe in a few drinks, let loose, and socialize with your friends. That face-to-face time where you're having fun with people you enjoy is great for your mental health as well. Do something good for yourself this weekend. Visit your favorite local bar for a little self-help.

What drink is Chicago known for? ›

Arguably the most popular of Chicago's famed drinks, the Old Fashioned is a cocktail pretty true to its name. The first-recorded mention of this cocktail was in an 1803 newspaper, where the editor mentioned a drink made with a combination of spirits, sugar, water and bitters.

What Street in Chicago has the most bars? ›

The 12-mile-long street that stretches from Rogers Park to Chinatown has 203 places that serve alcohol, about 17 per mile. Or to put it another way, you can go drinking every night for nearly seven months along Clark Street and never stop in the same place twice.

Where can I meet guys in Chicago? ›

7 Ways To Meet Singles In Chicago

How many bars are in Manhattan? ›

Welcome to the Manhattan Bar Directory, a list of 147 bars that should help you find a place to drink in any part of the borough.

What were bars called in the 1890s? ›

In urban America from 1890 to 1920, when working-class taverns were popularly known as 'saloons' (derived from the French 'salon'), most customers were men who passed through the swing-doors to join their male comrades in the bar- room proper.

How do you get into the Lazy Bird in Chicago? ›

Lazy Bird is walk-in only. Walk-ins are welcome but we only take advance bookings for 6 or more. Give us a call on +33 (0) 185 657 501. If you are a guest at The Hoxton, we will happily book you a table at any time.

What makes a bar a pub? ›

A pub has no strict definition, but CAMRA states that a pub has four characteristics: Open to the public without membership / residency. Serve draught beer or cider without requiring food be consumed. Have at least one indoor area not laid out for meals.

What do you do at bars? ›

Bars, by definition, are the places where people go to consume numerous alcoholic beverages. The primary objective of bars is to provide you with as many different alcoholic drinks or liquors as possible. They also offer snacks like chips or nuts to eat, and some may even provide food from a dinner menu.

What should you not do at a bar? ›

10 Things Not to Do in a Bar
  • Don't be a bad tipper. ...
  • Don't wave money to get a bartender's attention. ...
  • Forget about hitting on the bartender. ...
  • Don't order cocktails in a beer bar (or beer in a cocktail bar) ...
  • Don't make the bartender pick your drink for you.
23 Aug 2017

What age should you stop clubbing? ›

Typically, clubbing loses its appeal in our early 30s; 31 is the age at which most give up, according to a 2017 survey. But for those who do keep dancing, it can be much more than just a night out. What starts as an act of teenage transgression becomes radical in middle age.

What do you call people who go to bars? ›

Clubber is fine. It's a fairly new word that exists solely for that context. There are a good number of different words to describe different aspects of the behaviour of said person, but to simply state that they frequent clubs, 'clubber' is accurate.

What is a Chicago handshake? ›

Chicago Handshake is tasteful mild cocktail at 1.8 standard drinks. Built with 30ml jeppsons malort and 290ml beer and best with lunch. Just pour shot glass of jeppsons then add beer to tall glass and drink shot in one go then sip beer and served in a highball glass cold.

What beer is Chicago known for? ›

Meister Bräu was the Chicago brand — think a local version of Hamm's, Schlitz, or Old Style. Old Style, you may know, is “Chicago's beer.” It even goes so far as to brand itself as such. And who can overlook the numerous Old Style signs hanging off taverns — that may or may not still be in business — around the city?

What time is last call in Chicago? ›

In Chicago, it is regular license bars 2 a.m., Sunday to Friday at 3 a.m. Saturday. Some bars have a late night license, allowing them to close two hours later so 4 a.m. Sunday through Friday at 5 a.m. Saturday.

What time does Chicago stop serving alcohol? ›

Hours of Operation

The closing hour under a standard Consumption or Tavern liquor license is 2 am, Monday through Saturday, and 3 am on Sunday. With a Late Hour Liquor License, those establishments are permitted to remain open until 4 am Monday through Saturday and 5 am on Sunday.

What is the oldest bar in Illinois? ›

Established in 1847, The Village Tavern is the oldest tavern/restaurant in continuous operation in Illinois.

Is it hard to date in Chicago? ›

Chicago's not a bad place to date—we're a city of more than two and a half million people, after all—but everyone needs a little help in the romance department sometimes, no matter if you're casually dating, managing a situationship or looking to spice things up with a long-term SO.

Is dating better in Chicago or NYC? ›

But when it comes to finding love, Chicago reigns supreme to the Big Apple. We've got an endless supply of romantic date ideas, plenty of dimly lit bars and restaurants and first date recommendations galore. Chicago is second to none—particularly when it comes to getting laid.

Is Chicago a good city to date in? ›

Romance fans, Chicago is the place to be. Romance is abloom, in Chicago– or at least it is according to a recent poll conducted on From Mars, a digital health platform for men. According to the poll, Chicago is one of the best dating spots in the U.S, ranking high on the list of 'best cities to go on a date in'.

Can a child sit at a bar in New York? ›

Minors under the age of 16 are not permitted in establishments that serve alcohol unless accompanied by a parent or guardian.

Do New Yorkers drink a lot? ›

The average New Yorker drank 685 alcoholic drinks in 2021, the survey, conducted by drugabuse.com, found. That was still a bit more than the national average — 675 — across America.

Why did saloons have mirrors? ›

Whether it is to grab a bottle, use the cash register, or anything else, the bartender can use the mirror to watch what's going on while their back is turned. During the days of the wild west, it could have prevented them from being ambushed and robbed.

How did cowboys keep their beer cold? ›

It would usually last most of the summer. Down in Arizona, you'd see signs in front of saloons saying “Cool Beer,” not “Cold Beer.” Wet gunny sacks and sawdust would keep the beer fairly cool. Outside of Flagstaff were some ice caves, and saloonkeepers would harvest ice from the caves during the summer.

What did they drink in saloons? ›

But the majority of western saloon regulars boozed straight alcohol — rye or bourbon.

What is a lazy bird? ›


What is bar stand for? ›

The “bar” in bar exam or bar association is not an acronym. The origin of the term bar derives from the physical layout of a courtroom. A wood rail separates court observers from the judge, jury, lawyers, and parties in a courtroom. This wooden bar has come to symbolize the law.

Why is bar called bar? ›

The term derives from the metal or wooden bar (barrier) that is often located along the length of the "bar". Over many years, heights of bars were lowered, and high stools added, and the brass bar remains today. Bars provide stools or chairs that are placed at tables or counters for their patrons.

Why do pubs close at 11? ›

The pubs have to close at 11pm as this is the time that the beer refineries cease operations for the evening and stop piping beer to the pubs. During the night the ageing pipe work is then inspected and any breaks or leaks are fixed so as to prevent flooding.

What bartenders should not do? ›

Bartenders Reveal 24 Things You Should Never, Ever Do at Bars
  • Don't plead for drinks after closing time. ...
  • Don't take fruit from the fruit trays meant for drinks. ...
  • Don't rip up coasters or labels and leave the scraps all over the floor or bar.
2 Oct 2014

Can you meet a nice guy in a bar? ›

You can certainly meet a guy at a bar. (All you have to do is stick around until last call and you're bound to meet someone. Though you might regret it in the morning.) Meeting a random person in a bar seems so quaint, what with our modern world of online dating and robot girlfriends.

What is bar etiquette? ›

Bar etiquette can be described as the way a bar goer should act while out enjoying themselves at a club or at a bar. Just as there is a certain way of ordering drinks in a bar, there's a certain way of behaving yourself while in a bar.

Why do bartenders tap the bar? ›

Likewise, tapping your glass or mug on the bar signified when you started a new glass. Fraternity members frequently claim that it's an old Greek tradition. -Others say that it's a mark of respect to the bartender. Some believe that you cheers to the future, but a tap on the bar acknowledges the past.

Is it OK to drink alone at a bar? ›

Drinking alone at a bar is an essential experience for any drinking grown-up. It can be wonderfully relaxing, whether you're unwinding after work at your local dive, enjoying a pre-flight cocktail at the airport lounge or sipping a glass of pinot over a good book at your favorite wine bar.

What are the three things you're not supposed to talk about in a bar? ›

Religion, Politics, Race......

What is the prime party age? ›

Prime Party Years

The absolute peak partying age in the U.S. was 22, according to 1,000 Americans. In theory, this would give each person one year of legal alcohol consumption to learn the ropes and be in prime partying form by the following year.

How do you pick up girls in a dance club? ›

Well, if you insist on bugging us, here's some rules you can follow to keep things chill and fun for everybody.
  1. Have another reason to be there. ...
  2. Don't lurk. ...
  3. Wait for her signal. ...
  4. Approach from the front. ...
  5. Say hi and introduce yourself. ...
  6. Offer to buy her a drink. ...
  7. See if she'd like to dance. ...
  8. Hands off, Handsy.
28 Jan 2015

What should a woman wear to a nightclub? ›

Nightclub Dress Codes

Bodycon skirts, jeans, and a cute top or a jumpsuit – there are no rules when it comes to dressing appropriately. However, it's best to avoid chunky sneakers or ill-fitting T-shirts, so stick to eveningwear that is worth showing off.

What does 900 mean in a bar? ›

The code "900" meant there was a couple on a date where the man was likely to tip well because "he's showing off." The numbers "601" and "602" were used to describe needing to go to the bathroom, while "608" meant it was time for a meal break.

What does a black straw in a drink mean? ›

Black straws are for bartenders, they come unwrapped, so you instinctually put them in drinks that come in pint glasses. Like long islands. The servers usually only have access to the clear straws. No bar code there.

How do bars say no ice? ›

For a drink made without ice or mixer, you'd order it "neat," and it would be served to you in an Old Fashioned cocktail glass. So, you might say, "I'd like a bourbon, neat." To order a martini "up" or "straight up," means you'd like it chilled.

How many restaurant are in Chicago? ›

With over 21,000 restaurants and $16 billion in sales annually, getting all of those supplies to Chicago restaurants is an enormous task.

How many bars are in Manhattan? ›

Welcome to the Manhattan Bar Directory, a list of 147 bars that should help you find a place to drink in any part of the borough.

How many restaurants are in Illinois? ›

According to the Illinois Restaurant Association, in March there were 25,851 restaurants operating in the state. It estimates 20% -- nearly 5,200 restaurants -- will go out of business in the coming months because of COVID-19.

What percentage of Chicago is black? ›

What are people from Chicago called? ›

a native or inhabitant of Chicago, Ill.

Why do people move to Chicago? ›

Why should you move to Chicago? You should move to Chicago because it's an ever-growing selection of residential locations, amazing arts, entertainment, and a glitzy skyline. Lacking the pretentiousness of such cities as LA, New York, and Miami, Chicago has a warm and friendly feel that's found in its residents.

Can a child sit at a bar in New York? ›

Minors under the age of 16 are not permitted in establishments that serve alcohol unless accompanied by a parent or guardian.

Do New Yorkers drink a lot? ›

The average New Yorker drank 685 alcoholic drinks in 2021, the survey, conducted by drugabuse.com, found. That was still a bit more than the national average — 675 — across America.

What city in Illinois has the most restaurants? ›

According to Nielsen data, Bloomington-Normal is home to the most restaurants per capita IN THE ENTIRE COUNTRY and has the third highest restaurant growth index in Illinois, only behind Chicago and Springfield.

What city has the most restaurants? ›

You name it, this city has it. San Francisco is home to the most restaurants in the entire country. It is known specifically for its abundance of American cuisine, but also features a lot of ethnic options.

How many bars does Illinois have? ›

If you're looking for which state has the most bars, Illinois has Wisconsin beat, but not by much. The study shows that Wisconsin has 2732 total bars, while Illinois has 2792. Those totals place The Land of Lincoln as the state with the 4th most in America, with The Dairy State trailing just behind in 5th.


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