I grew up in Blue Island, Illinois. I went to college in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. When I came of drinking age, which would have been 1979 in Wisconsin and 1982 in Illinois, both of these cities were dotted with neighborhood bars, taverns, pubs, saloons, or whatever you would call them. Each had a personality of its own that would be difficult to explain to one not familiar with this sort of establishment. As drinking venues go, I have always preferred those to their larger, noisier counterparts. But more than that, some of these places were special to me.
I speak of neighborhood bars, because I am by and large a city mouse, but should point out that small town bars seem to have the same flavor as these—only there aren’t nearly as many to choose from. Back when I lived and drank in Blue Island, for example, that city had a population of just over 20,000 people. Not a terribly large community by some standards, but there were many bars there, not just on the main thoroughfares, but in the residential areas—the neighborhoods—themselves. Each was a place quite unique unto itself, quite different from all the others. Many of these establishments have gone away since that time, but you get the idea.
When you find a good one, you know so, because it resonates with you somewhere deep within. Case in point, my personal favorite in the Blue Island of my day was a place called the Backstage, on the corner of Vermont Street and Hoyne Avenue. Get this, my favorite neighborhood bar wasn’t even in my neighborhood. Ha! The place was awesome. It had atmosphere. The Backstage was the kind of place where people could meet and talk and have fun, without being bothered. The owner kept a nice place, something I learned to appreciate over time. But alas, it’s long gone now. That property isn’t even a bar anymore, And truth be told, there are fewer places like this in that town… maybe elsewhere, too.
Milwaukee, circa 1983, the last year I lived there as a student at Marquette University. Back then I could walk two blocks in any direction from my apartment and hit at least one bar, usually way more than one. The whole city seemed to be full of them. My personal favorite, that year? I had two. Very near my apartment was the Harp & Shamrock on West Wells Street. Although the place still stands, I’m sure the original proprietor Bernie Conway is now long gone. What a character he was! Bernie kept a clean place, where one would always feel safe, as long as you were not a vagrant or otherwise undesirable sort, in the owner’s estimation (let me leave it at that). He had a large bartender named Tom, who also doubled as the bouncer, and a large German Shepherd named Duke, who slept behind the bar, helping the patrons feel safe, I guess. In 1983 the Harp & Shamrock was a throwback bar, in every sense of the word, yet I loved that place. It was there that I first kissed the girl who would become my wife, despite the fact that at the time, she was already engaged to marry another—that’s a long, sordid story for another time.
My second favorite exists only as a memory now, Wimpy’s Hunt Club, way over on the east side of the city, a stone’s throw from Milwaukee’s old Oriental Theater. Now this place had class. Owned by one Wilbert “Wimpy” Kotas (I knew him only as Wimpy), a silver-haired gentleman who usually wore a crisp, white dress shirt behind the bar. Up on the wall behind him hung a beautiful painting (maybe it was a print, I no longer recall) of a classic fox hunt scene. Opposite the bar was a row of old-fashioned horseshoe booths. The jukebox was loaded with Frank Sinatra, Perry Como and such. No beer on tap, only bottled. This was a clean, quiet, classy place. I only took certain friends there and was very sad the night I returned, just a few years later, and found it gone.
Some additional years after that, while having dinner in Chicago, I learned from a business acquaintance who had lived above that very bar when he was first married (small world indeed) that Wimpy had been murdered one morning after closing up the bar. While walking home, he encountered two men fighting. I’m sure Wimpy’s barkeeper instincts kicked in, he moved in to stop the fight, and was stabbed to death. This apparently happened in 1984, just one year after I had graduated and left Milwaukee. As happy as I had been to meet somebody who had known Wimpy’s Hunt Club, I was stunned by this news.
Now fast forward to 2016. Bars like I just described are somewhat hard to come by in the sprawl of exurbia, where I live. Sports bars are a dime a dozen out here—they open and disappear with predictable regularity out my way, because let’s face it, how many large, noisy sports bars can any community support. But I found a place this year. I found a place that rivals the kind of establishments I just described to you.
I don’t know if Lemont, Illinois is big enough to have neighborhoods, but I’ll tell you this: Lemont has a hell of a bar. Let me tell you about Nick’s Tavern. I’ve only been there twice, so far, but I can already tell you one thing: I like this place. It has everything I look for in a drinking establishment.
Here you will not find dozens of tappers, nor a ten-page menu, nor giant TV screens glaring at you from every direction. And that’s okay by me. If I want any of that, I’ll go to a mega sports bar, the kind I can find in just about every city and village within the greater Chicagoland metropolitan area. They’re all alike and on most days, as far as I’m concerned, you can have them. Just give me a place like Nick’s.
Give me a place with a bit of history, and maybe some good stories to go along with that history. A place where I am made to feel welcome the minute I step through that door. Nick’s Tavern is that kind of place. The wood paneling and somewhat weathered-looking wooden bar give the place a warm atmosphere. Certain touches, like the old cash register on display in one corner and the stamped metal tile ceiling, tell you that this place has been around for a while. The bartenders greet people as they arrive and seem genuinely glad to see everyone, even me. The regulars are greeted by name.
People are eating, drinking, talking, laughing… and it just makes me smile to see and hear all this. The first time I went there, I brought my wife and we both liked it. The second time, I brought a friend who had grown up with me in Blue Island, and who had also drank quite heavily with me back in the day. The following day he texted me, “If Nick’s was in between our houses, I would make that our our usual meeting place. I like that place.”
To which I could only reply, “Me, too!” I invited my friend Ed to come out and see Nick’s because I had already known he was going to like it there. When you drink together for as long as Ed and I have been drinking together, you get to know each others preferences.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk a little bit about the food. They make a very good burger at Nick’s, but come hungry. The full-on Nickburger is a one-pounder and the smaller Little Nickburger, which I get, is still half a pound of ground beef. Believe me, it’s fresh and tasty. They also do Italian beef, chicken sandwiches and more, but so far I haven’t gotten past the burger. No fries here, only chips.
I should also mention that Nick’s is a a cash-only proposition. What can I tell you, it’s a classic small bar.
But you know what? That’s just the way I like it. You’ll find Nick’s Tavern right on Main Street in downtown Lemont. Check it out. And as always, thanks for hanging with me.