photo: Clifton Henri
; Ernest Dawkins' New Horizon Ensemble plays at the Green Mill
, which operated as a speakeasy during Prohibition.
It's hard to imagine that a group of uppity old woman ruined it for everyone: Once the Woman's Christian Temperance Union decided that booze was bad, along came the Volstead Act and the 18th Amendment, an icky piece of legislation that established Prohibition and ironically bolstered America's love affair with alcohol. In the role of cupid was Al Capone, who made Chicago the least-sober American city of the 1920s. Under his reign, speakeasies hollowed the city's underground until the repeal of the amendment in 1933, when most simply disappeared.
But a few relics from the era went legit, and have since endured decades of over-excited tourists, scrambling to get in touch with their inner Untouchables. But out-of-towners shouldn't be the only ones to enjoy Chicago's outlaw past; locals, too, should pull up a stool at these former speakeasies.
There's a whiff of something in the air at this Old Town tavern—and, no, it's not just those heavenly ribs. Built in 1881, this historic building has housed a saloon since 1910, but it wasn't until just before the Volstead Act was repealed that Tante Lee Soft Drinks opened up. The year was 1932, and the drinks being served in the boarded-up building on Sedgwick Street were a little harder than advertised. The front appeared vacant, and the customers arrived through the back, along with the ill-gotten hooch.
Before long, Prohibition was over and a well-known entertainer with striking blue eyes adopted the rib joint as a second home—forever cementing the bar's status as a Chicago landmark.
In 1910, the modest Pop Morse's Roadhouse turned into a flamboyant beer garden called Green Mill Gardens, but it wasn't until the twenties that the infamous bar added a criminal element, when mobster "Machinegun" Jack McGurn earned a quarter-stake in the Mill. He did so by encouraging singer Joe E. Lewis to turn down an offer at a neighboring club; cutting out the singer's tongue did the trick.
McGurn's infamy came from his association with Capone, who ran his own speakeasy in the basement of a nearby building. Since the Mill had the Chicago police in its pocket, thanks to McGurn's connections, the lounge could brazenly operate as though the 18th Amendment didn't apply. Escape tunnels were built in the establishment's nether layers, and a hydraulic booze-lift was installed via a trapdoor behind the bar.
Green Door Tavern
In the years since Prohibition, River North has changed quite drastically, but the Green Door seems untouched by time. In 1872, just a few months after the Great Fire, the structure (one of the last all-wood ones permitted) that now houses the tavern was built. Its first incarnation as a grocery store lasted until 1921, when Vito Giacomoni opened the Huron-Orleans Restaurant. The proprietor's sons saw the value in the downtown location, and began hocking booze out of the basement, making it among the first speakeasies in the Loop.
The name Green Door comes from an old-time euphemism for "adult only," which at the time referred to speakeasies and later included illicit sex clubs. As it turns out, customers also enter this joint through a literal green door. Today, tourists love the Green Door for its sordid history and awkward slant: That wooden frame has settled into a pretty severe lean.
Way before the domestic beer-swiggin' frat boys moved in, the bar everyone loves to hate was into some seedy dealings. Fronted by a Chinese laundry, the building that now houses Barleycorn's Belden Avenue locale was the quintessential speakeasy. Carts filled with booze were topped with dirty laundry and rolled into the establishment undetected. The liquor went to the basement, which connected to the building's other side, and was transported to the speakeasy in true era style: via a hidden elevator. The back of the building (which is now the front) was conveniently boarded up to feign vacancy, a favorite trick of the trade.
The bar found a fan in John Dillinger, who loved to buy the house a round. No word on where the infamous bank robber got the dough to be so generous, but his fondness for the tap has made it a must-see tour stop for history buffs.
Having the longest-running liquor license on the North Side is quite an honor, but before Durkin's secured its papers, it did the speakeasy thing. From 1918 until the Volstead Act was repealed, the bar operated as Prohibition Willy's Speakeasy. Fronted by a soda parlor, the real fun happened in an 800-square-foot back room.
Durkin's has been legit since 1934, but a 1974 renovation unearthed its underbelly past, when workers found a secret room containing plenty of booze. Not one of the bottles of Portuguese brandy or White Horse scotch that was discovered carried a government seal. Hmm. Now part of the McGee Tavern family, Durkin's has lost much of its historic cred, trading in the dated decor for a slick new sports-bar face.