Sean Parnell at Southport Lanes
For most of 2001, I got paid to stumble from bar to bar for a book called The Official Chicago Bar Guide. At the time, I fancied myself Chicago’s top authority on the subject, but the city’s ever-shifting nocturnal scene—and a sudden glut of listings online—rendered my book irrelevant almost immediately. One of the 11 or 12 people who bought it was a Wrigleyville resident named Sean Parnell, who’d been doing his own research for Chicago Bar Project, an exhaustive online bar encyclopedia that kicked my little book’s ass all over the city. I never met him and never forgave him.
Until this past May, that is, when Parnell released Historic Bars of Chicago. One look at the book, which overflows with adoration for Chicago’s taverns and the implausible legends that haunt them, and I knew I had never been anything more than a nightlife dilettante. When I finally met Parnell, 36, over Guinness pints at Brehon Pub (731 N. Wells St.), I was embarrassed to find that he knew every word of my book and had never realized we were at war. He told me about the most underrated bar in town (Cody’s Public House, 1658 W. Barry Ave.); a pub that got its name because it once siphoned beer into its taps directly from the brewery next door (Schaller’s Pump, 3714 S. Halsted St.); and a place where patrons drink shots from an inflatable sheep’s rectum (Friar Tuck, 3010 N. Broadway). But it wasn’t until Parnell quizzed me on bar trivia that I grasped the truth: I’d never known bars—or loved them—quite the way he does.
SP: All right. A former owner of this bar was a boxer who set up a ring in the bar where he would box patrons. It also has one of the city’s oldest urinals. What bar?
JR: How do people know how old a urinal is?
SP: You could just look at it and know. It’s massive. An elephant could go in this thing.
JR: Man, I have no idea.
SP: It’s The Mutiny [2428 N. Western Ave.], an old punk bar in a building that dates back to the early 1900s.
JR: How about a bar I’ve heard of?
SP: OK. Someone named Peaches was shot at the first location of this late-night bar. Who is Peaches and what bar?
JR: Peaches was a rumrunner who worked with Al Capone, and he got shot at The Green Mill [4802 N. Broadway].
SP: Peaches is a portrait of a nude woman at Nick’s Beergarden [1516 N. Milwaukee Ave.].
JR: And someone shot her?
SP: No, they shot the painting.
SP: Which bar do we have to thank for the smoking ban in Chicago? The Sun-Times did an undercover report that measured the smoke content in the air in this bar and, according to EPA standards, concluded that it was equivalent to breathing the air immediately following a volcanic eruption.
JR: Billy Goat [430 N. Michigan Ave.]?
SP: It’s drawn students, professors, and Dylan Thomas.
JR: That’s got to be Jimmy’s Woodlawn Tap [1172 E. 55th St.].
SP: Yeah. That’s one for you. Here’s another. What establishment can claim two serial killers as patrons?
JR: Somewhere Gacy hung out?
SP: And Dahmer. It has to do with their hunting ground. It faces a parking lot at a major intersection where young, interesting types congregate.
JR: Oh, that dive right across from the Dunkin’ Donuts at Clark and Belmont. L & L Tavern [3207 N. Clark St.].
JR: OK, I’m feeling confident. Let me ask you one. What bar in Bucktown has a giant clock eternally set to 3:30?
SP: The Bucktown Pub [1658 W. Cortland St.] used to. But I think they redid the place like eight years ago.
JR: Let’s call it a night.
Photograph: Joe C. Moreno