Thursday, February 8, 2024

Diving into Jimmy's Woodlawn Tap

Jimmy's Woodlawn Tap,  1172 E. 55th Street

     They roll the sidewalks up early in Hyde Park. Surprisingly so, for a college town. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists conversation about their Doomsday Clock that I moderated at International House — thank you everyone who came out — ended shortly after 7 p.m. Pulling myself away from enthusiastic Sun-Times readers who wanted to say hello, share a story, or register complicated opinions regarding past columns, took 15 minutes or so. By 7:20, and we headed to dinner, first trying a noodle shop, but that was about to close, so we went next door to Medici on 57th.
    The waiter seating us said the kitchen closed at 7:45 p.m. — I glanced at my phone — 7:35.  He added that, if we want dessert, we should order it now. We passed on dessert. I got the steak sandwich, which was excellent, the bun fresh, the meat tender and garnished with a pleasing medley of diced peppers and onions. A generous helping of coleslaw, shaming the eyecup that most places serve. 
     By 8:20 Medici had almost completely emptied out. I wasn't going to make the 8:35 Metra. There wasn't another train until 9:45. But we couldn't stay here. I asked a waiter if there was somewhere to get dessert, maybe ice cream. He mentioned Insomnia Cookies, a student hangout. I made a face — big soft melty oversweet cookies aren't my thing. "Or the CVS," he ventured. "Something to go...." Eating a Little Debbie Cake in the car didn't sound like a good idea.
     How about a bar? I asked, and Jimmy's Woodlawn Tap was mentioned. "I've never been to Jimmy's Woodlawn Tap," I said, and that sealed it. Over to East 55th Street. "I don't drink, but I still like to go to bars," I said as we walked in, and my companion, who doesn't drink either, agreed. The place was hopping, but two open stools beckoned us right in the middle of the bar.
     "Do you have any NA beers?" I asked.
     "Yes," the bartender said. "Heineken Zero and Coragghle..." The last word was lost in the bar noise. Heineken 0.0 is adequate, the imported version of O'Doul's. A fan of novelty, I told him I'd have the second one, whatever it was. My companion ordered a Shirley Temple.
     Conversation ranged from what is a Shirley Temple — ginger ale with a splash of grenadine — t0 the role of a good bartender. I mentioned Phyllis Smith, the bartender at the Billy Goat on Washington. "We got to be good friends," I said. "I visited her at her home when she was dying of cancer. She'd been to my house, for parties." 
     Some accounts of the Woodlawn Tap allude to Dylan Thomas drinking there, as if it were some hazy, unverifiable rumor lost in the mock heroic past. It was no rumor; the great Welsh poet drank there on March 16, 1950, stacking his empty glasses up, one after another, and the bar's guest book has his signature to prove it.
     There is much to recommend drinking, while not-drinking is often given a short shrift as some kind of deprivation. But you know what real deprivation is? Being dead. Dylan Thomas died at 39. I might wish I had come up with something like "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night," but I wouldn't swap the past quarter century of being alive for it. Not drinking is its own kind of fun. I've grown to like it. One makes fewer mistakes. My faux beer arrived, a Corona with a lime jammed in its neck. I never drank that sort of thing back when it was popular — apparently it still is — but gave it a try. Actually quite good — the lime providing a citrus note, the malt very beerlike.  
     There is something about sitting at a bar that encourages confidentiality, even if you aren't drinking, and we leaned against the deeply gouged bar and talked about important things for half an hour. Time passed quickly. I looked around the place, thinking to take a photo of something distinctive, but Jimmy's, with its black walls, didn't really offer up a lot of decoration, beyond a backlit university seal, which I positioned in the upper right corner of the photo above. It's a classic dive bar, beloved by locals, famous for mixing all types, mechanics and professors — though I imagine, nowadays, the former does better than the latter. 
     The food looked good, and is indeed supposed to be very good. I'll certainly be returning to Jimmy's soon. It's the sort of place where, back in the day, I'd enjoy a cheeseburger and a Jack on the rocks or three. But now just the cheeseburger will do fine.





30 comments:

  1. Just as automobiles have become safer thru use, experimentation, and added safety features, so too has imbibing. For most.

    Any reason you didn't take a car and leave at your leisure? Public transport isn't guaranteed, after all.

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    1. My default is public transportation. It's easier, often quicker, certainly cheaper. A day pass cost $11 on Metra — parking downtown would be double that, or more. But the bottom line is I'd much rather spend 45 minutes reading the paper than navigating traffic. The Metra Electric is $3.75 from Millennium Station to 59th street. Can't beat that.

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    2. Your car starting is not guaranteed either. What an odd comment about public transit. Also, if automobiles have gotten safer why are auto deaths on the rise?

      Thanks for promoting public transit, Neil.

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    3. Because drivers have gotten worse and more plentiful. You've got to have noticed the bozos on all the highways doing 25 mph over the limit and weaving around. There was not as much of that 20 years ago. If the cars weren't safer, the highway death toll would probably by 50% higher.

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    4. As an old person who has always really enjoyed driving in the last few years I have gotten to the point where I try to schedule anything I need to do between the hours of 9 AM and 3PM. Less jackasses to deal with.

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    5. Same here. I've been driving for 56 years and always loved it - until the last few years. Now I get my errands done by 3 pm as well while there's less hurried and angry drivers on the road and I avoid expressways with the unbelievable number of trucks that routinely take up pretty every lane and surround my sedan that they could quash like a bug. Sadly, driving is just not enjoyable anymore.

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  2. Fun night at International House hearing about our potential doom and destruction. I would have liked to hear more about the Teddy Bears though. Too bad she cut you off.

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    1. I just so happened to be reading this earlier in the day. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/history-teddy-bear-once-seen-dangerous-influence-young-children-180983234/

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  3. Jimmy’s also has great (Swiss) cheeseburgers. At least they did forty years ago…

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  4. I too no longer drink. A near fatal accident 41 years ago plus becoming a father made me wake up. Like you Neil, I liked sitting in bars, talking to friends and even tended bar for a few years. I also liked watching sports as part of the group. I'll go once in a while now, again with friends but I beat feet when the talk begins to recycle.
    The Heineken zero is good, best so far though I recently visited Denver and took a tour through the Coors Brewery which was interesting. Coors has an N/A called Edge. Very tasty. A good column today, made think of how lucky I am in so many ways. Keep coming back!

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  5. You nailed how I feel about bars and sobriety too. I'm almost five years sober and I still love a good bar.

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  6. I'm not much of a drinker, but I was for awhile. 1980-81. My friend Pat and I would go out on the weekends. We discovered what would become our hangout. The Amber Light Lounge on Elston Avenue. Essentially a biker bar, it was owned by a guy named Sandy and the bartender was Jan. Dark, smoky, loud jukebox, pool table in the back, a 4:00 license. Friday's and Saturdays, we closed the place. It was pretty near perfect ... at the time. Probably long gone, but a fond memory.

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  7. Monday I will have 46 years. I’ve been to the Tap in baaaaad times and good. Good is a helluva lot better than bad.

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    1. You are to be commended...Happy Birthday, as we say.

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  8. I visited the Woodlawn Tap last evening, before going to see “Antigone” at the Court Theater. The Tap’s polish sausage was outstanding — as was the play. Highly recommend both.

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  9. my spouse and I enjoyed the Doomsday event. got there late and ended up in the front row! the train is definitely the way to travel, though we could have walked we drove. free legal parking 50 feet from the door.

    Ms. Bronson is an impressive and incredibly knowledgeable speaker. You did well to not overly moderate , and patiently allow that last question. What would the world look like with the clock set to 10 pm?

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    1. You should have said, "Hello, I'm FME!" I'm so glad that last question got in — it made the whole evening worthwhile.

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    2. Yes it did. I think it was the second to last question before even a note of optimism came up about anything when Ms. Bronson was speaking about AI and how it seems possible to rein it in and not make it such a threat

      I guess I generally try to avoid topics like this because from my backyard the world seems great and America, fantastic! I have an embarrassment of riches and if it all came crashing to an end without me knowing that that was even possible. How would I even know it happened? I'd be as oblivious as my chickens

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  10. Your photo reminded me of a dive bar I frequented near Union Station long ago. The bottles were arrayed in three tiers along the back wall of the bar. Masking tape pieces were affixed beneath each bottle, handwritten signs announcing the price for a shot of each particular whiskey. The frontage was equally less classy than the Woodlawn, the sidewalk window mostly a painted sign announcing "Eddie and Mikes". But everyone called it "Mike and Eddies" and nobody knew why. Few women would enter this shot and a beer bar, and fewer would remain once inside, especially those who tried the bathroom, as even the mens room was stomach turning. Remarkably, the average net worth of the clientele was probably higher than most Chicago establishments as CME employees and traders were the primary customers. There were always a couple of multimillionaires in the place, often having one for the road, before they went to their Bentley or Maserati parked in the adjacent Union Station Garage. A few of the old panhandlers would still stop in, paying for their drinks with coins, but the Merc crowd had made the place their own.

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    1. This reminded me of the great line from "Trading Places.". "One minute you're up, the next your kids don't go to college and they're repossesing your Bentley!"

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  11. Who’s the Priest looking down on everyone from the upper left side of your photo? No judging, I hope!

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  12. I did not go to Jimmy's once the whole time I was in college at U of C. It was law school.that drove me to drink; we hit the bars every Friday after classes were over. I don't drink much now, but I enjoy a glass of wine in a bar, unless it's full of people in town for a convention.

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  13. I found this post very comforting. There's something reassurancing that places like this still exist.

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  14. Oh, Jimmy's. It's the bar that has the most character in that neighborhood. I have good memories of my college years of being there after a theatre rehearsal. Tasty (and cheap, at least 20 years ago) cheeseburgers and beer.

    It's a weird neighborhood (for better or for worse), even as it's gotten fancier in recent years. But Jimmy's was right choice, and I'm glad they had a NA beer for you.

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  15. Back in the day, we went to Jimmy's a number of times. While the decor was certainly never the draw, it's a swell spot. The cheeseburgers were good and we concluded that the Foster's "oil cans" (25 ounces) of lager were the value option. Well before the craft beer explosion, when Australian beer seemed exotic. I later heard that Aussies consider it to be swill.

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  16. Went to bars in college, but more for the socializing than the drinking. Never was much of a boozer. Weed became my drug of choice. Knew I wasn't rich enough or cool enough for Rush Street, so I began hanging out on Lincoln Ave. in the late 70s. Began seeing a classy Near North lady, who had lived in Boston and Paris, and I wanted to impress her. So we squeezed into my old VW Bug and eased on down the road... to Hyde Park.

    Don't remember going to Jimmy's, but I know we finally ended up at the Cove Lounge, which is also on E. 55th, about six blocks east of Jimmy's. It's a dive bar now, but it was a jazz bar back then. Live music, and maybe the best jazz jukebox in the city. She was somewhat impressed. But when I learned she was also dating a connected guy, from Little Italy, I quickly took my talents elsewhere.

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  17. It’s great to go out and socialize, and yet remember everything about it the next day! Like you, I don’t miss the alcohol part! And I am also happy to be alive today.

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  18. Jimmy's Woodlawn Tap features a chef (as described by Jimmy's) on Saturday evenings who makes two special sandwiches: ITALIAN BEEF "served on a toasted roll topped with au jus, pepperoncini peppers & (upon request) mild giardiniera and a CAPRESE SANDWICH "with fresh mozzarella, tomato & basil, served on a lightly toasted focaccia roll with basil pesto, and a balsamic glaze & olive oil." As posted on a a sign behind the bar and on the front door.

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