Happy Birthday, Chicago! Our fantastic city turns an amazing 174 years old today (March 4th) and Chicagoans have been drinking in taverns way before our incorporation in 1837. In fact, it was in 1833 that a few prominent residents got together at the Sauganash Tavern to talk about making this small town official. Located within the once famous Sauganash Hotel, at what is present day 191 N. Wacker Drive, these folks would often come back to the tavern to discuss city politics all whilst throwing back a few beers. My guess is that city officials have continued the tradition.
The Sauganash Tavern was one of the earliest pubs in town. Sadly, most of these places were lost to the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 (the Sauganash was actually destroyed by a fire in 1851). Just after the fire, city officials banned the construction of wooden houses (and sidewalks) within city limits, but interestingly, a man by the name of James McCole was able to sneak in one last wooden home in 1872. That building still stands today at 678 N. Orleans and, lucky for us, it houses the Green Door Tavern.
James McCole was able to construct his lovely wooden home and stable in the back because the ordinance took a while to pass. It is, indeed, the last frame building to exist after the ordinance was passed. Having been built upon fire rubble, it’s no surprise that the house started to lean as it settled; it still leans today – one of my favorite characteristics of the bar. James lived there briefly, and in 1910 he decided to pack it up and rent his place to Lawrence P. Ek. Larry had his grocery store on the main floor and lived on the second floor. By 1917, Charles Chambers was the renter and instead of a grocery store, his business was that of a meat market.
Just one year into the Prohibition era, Vito Giacomoni opened the Huron-Orleans restaurant in 1921. His sons, Jack and Nello, helped pops run the place. Vito was quite the businessman and he catered to any patron that needed anything in his place. It’s no shock then that good ol’ Vito ran a good ol’ speakeasy in his basement. It’s one of the few documented speakeasies in the city (let’s face it, everyone will tell you their bar used to be a speakeasy but that doesn’t mean it was) and it was also one of the earliest illicit drinking dens in Chicago. It was frequented by many a gangsters that knew to look for the secret green door entrance. That and a special knock, secret code word, or a sponsorship of some sort got you in. After some time, the nickname “the green door” stuck and provided an obvious name for a new legal drinking establishment in 1933.
The Green Door Tavern is located in the bustling River North neighborhood, but it wasn’t always this way. From the 1940s through the 1970s, the bar was a target for a plethora of armed robberies. In fact, the neighborhood was a seedy little area and one newspaper reporter wrote, “the Green Door Tavern is not the kind of place one would bring a proper lady”. During the 1980s local businessmen began opening new art galleries, bar, restaurants, and soon real estate developers followed suit by converting many of the old factory buildings into artsy lofty living spaces.
In 1985, George Parenti purchased the Green Door Tavern from the Giacomonis. Parenti wanted to get back to the bar’s roots, literally. He started digging around in the depths of the building and discovered all kinds of historic items from the building’s past. He uncovered an old ledger from the old restaurant. It listed things like Milk $12.50, Cheese $22.50. Root beer $625.00. Root beer for $625? Hmmm, something tells me that wasn’t really root beer! George took all of the stuff he found, cleaned it up, and used it for décor for his bar – and that’s one of the first things you’ll notice about the place. Covered in fantastic relics, the place screams history.
The bar once again changed ownership in the 1990s , and today, a nice fella named Paul runs the place. Paul is also a lover of the past and continues to add historic charm to the tavern. He has restored the basement to its glory days of being a speakeasy. While the space has been recreated by stage props, it still gives you a taste of the kind of environment our pals Capone, Moran, and Dillinger may have frequented.
The tavern is a personal favorite because it incorporates so many aspects of Chicago’s great history. And in its present form, it does a nice job of providing a classy glimpse into the past, while embracing modern day conveniences (like delicious food and even more delicious craft beer). Eat, drink, and be merry is this tavern’s motto. Yeah, and in a place like this, that’s not such a hard thing to do. Bottom’s up, Chicago, and Happy Birthday to the best damn city in the world!