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In God We Trust

The dueling fish fries of Lincoln Avenue

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Kevin Clancy, the bearded, bespectacled owner of Clancy's Lincoln Avenue Pub & Grub, can't quite put a finger on when he realized he was at war with the joint across the street.

But he knows he's in one now. It's for fish fry supremacy.

The story begins seven years ago, when Clancy bought the building that houses his pub, which is at Lincoln and Cullom, just a few blocks south of Lincoln Square. It's a ramshackle piece of wood-frame construction covered by mismatched swathes of ancient siding. The building has housed taverns since at least the 1920s, Clancy says. Legend has it John Dillinger once robbed the place.

This is Clancy's second crack at running a tavern. He briefly owned a place on South State Street in the late 80s. When he closed, "I was about $100,000 in debt," he says. To pay off the debt he went to work for a company that installed heating-oil tanks. Once he was back on his feet, he borrowed from a bank and tried again.

A lifelong north-sider, Clancy felt comfortable in his new neighborhood, and he now lives within walking distance of his bar. It was a working-class area and Clancy's fit in. There's an Old Style sign still over the doorway and a handful of beer signs on the wall, but an array of liquor bottles behind the bar provides most of the decoration. The inside's dark and smells of ten thousand cigarettes.

"This is a drinking hole," says Rory O'Brien, who tends bar at Clancy's. "Around four to six o'clock the bar will be full. It's construction workers, mostly. Guys looking for beer."

But Clancy's, where a small sign behind the bar warns, "Be nice--or leave," feels like family. "Clancy's will always be a neighborhood bar," says Imelda Cushley, another Clancy's bartender. "No matter how many coats of paint you put on it or how you change the lighting, it will always be a neighborhood tavern and it will always have people in it."

A year after the bar opened, Clancy began adding dinner specials. There was the Tuesday spaghetti special (since discontinued) and the Wednesday fried chicken special. But most popular of all was the Friday fish fry. Clancy advertised these specials in the cheapest way possible--by hanging white Tyvek banners paid for by beer companies from the side of his tavern.

The fish fry became a neighborhood institution. Irish expatriates, many of them construction workers and carpenters, now flock to the bar, and the air is so thick with nearly incomprehensible brogues that Clancy's could pass for a pub in Dublin.

But it is where it is, in a neighborhood that happens to be changing. In the past five years real estate prices have skyrocketed. Soaring rents and property taxes have forced out families and businesses that were there for decades. Along Lincoln Avenue the Butera, the Salvation Army, and various thrift stores all shut their doors. In came the condos. In came a couple of Starbuckses.

And in came Giuseppe Salemme, who took note of the changes and four years ago bought the shuttered storefront that would become the Wild Goose Bar & Grill, across the street from Clancy's. Over the years this red brick building had housed a variety of businesses, ranging from light industry to a restaurant. "When I took over it was a dive," says Salemme. "The entire place was painted black. The walls were black, the windows were black, the floor was black."

He estimates putting $60,000 into renovating the place. On the sign outside Salemme's door there's a stylized wild goose. Inside are 11 regular TVs and one large-screen unit. Dark wood dominates, and the walls display tastefully pointless bar clutter: a beer can collection, vintage Chicago photographs, some batting helmets, a stuffed goose.

But when the bar reopened in April 1998, the accoutrements weren't enough to bring in customers. "It was scary at the beginning," Salemme says. He hung in, and in the last year began experimenting with his own dinner specials. One of the first was a fish fry, promoted--just like Clancy's fish fry across the street--with a Tyvek banner.

"It didn't really faze me," says Clancy. "Maybe he was thinking he'd take some of our overflow. I can't blame him."

Whatever Salemme was thinking, the launch of the fish fry coincided with a surge in the Wild Goose's popularity. These days, any night of the week you'll see goateed patrons at the dozen or so tables, other patrons playing eight ball, still others out on the sidewalk talking on cell phones.

This summer Salemme introduced a Wednesday chicken special, again promoted by a Tyvek banner. Now a dozen or so banners obscure the facade of the Wild Goose, some of them announcing attractions that haven't been ripped off from Clancy's, such as the Bloody Mary bar and the Sunday brunch.

The banners have been noticed across the street. "There's not much you can do about it," says Rory O'Brien. "They just copy everything we do....Their prices are lower than ours, but it doesn't show much imagination, now does it?"

"They had it first," Salemme concedes. He excuses himself by saying he doesn't view Clancy's as competition. "The average age over there is around 50 to 60, but our age is between 30 and 40," he explains. "It's a pretty young crowd, a pretty yuppie crowd."

Salemme is from Naples, Italy, and he does some of the cooking himself. Indeed, he seems insulted when his food is compared to Clancy's. "We deep-fry it in Guinness at a high temperature," he says of his fish fry. "It's a white cod, and it cooks really fast, so it's not soggy." He says the response has been so strong he was able to raise the price from $5.75 to $6.75. He also stresses that his Wednesday night chicken special isn't an exact copy of Clancy's, because his chicken isn't fried, it's roasted.

Though Clancy's tables are as full as ever on Friday nights, some of his clientele has crossed the street for the fried fish. David McLaughlin, an Irish native who has eaten at Clancy's many times, is spotted sitting at the Wild Goose on a recent Friday. "The fish is way better," he says. "The batter is a lot better. It's a lot lighter."

But Clancy, who says his bar has done so well that he paid off his debt a couple of years ago, doesn't seem worried. "I think the better it is for everybody, the more nice establishments you have on a corner," he declares. (Bransfield's, a restaurant with a bar, opened earlier this summer at the same corner, so Clancy had better hope he's right.) Bartender Imelda Cushley echoes her boss's nonchalance. "He saw it working over here," she says. "He's a wise businessman."

But last week when I visited both taverns, another of Clancy's bartenders called Salemme something different. "Tell Giuseppe I said he's an asshole," said Michelle, who goes by her first name only. She was laughing. "Seriously, tell him I said that. He'll laugh. I'll bet he'll laugh."

I passed along the greeting to Salemme, and sure enough he did laugh. Then he told a story on Michelle. It seemed that one night a Clancy's regular called Hughie, an Irish native, crossed the street to shoot pool at the Wild Goose. He left word for his friends, all Clancy's regulars, to meet him there. When Michelle got wind of this, she marched across Lincoln Avenue and confronted Hughie.

True enough, says Cushley. "She read him the riot act. She called him a traitor." It was all in good fun, say Michelle and Cushley both, and Hughie was back at Clancy's the next night. The enmity between the bars is mostly for show. Salemme has had a beer or two at Clancy's, and Michelle's done the same at the Wild Goose.

Even so, the staff at Clancy's watches closely every time another Tyvek banner goes up across the street. One of the most recent promoted ten-cent chicken wings on Monday nights. Clancy's responded with its own banner--chicken wings on Monday nights for five cents.

"We did that just to piss Giuseppe off," says Clancy. "We did that as a little shot. It's cheap fun."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Nathan Mandell.

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