Four years ago, when George Hogland, Sean Doheny, and Pat Cummings invited 25 drinking chums to pile onto a bus and spend a day hunting for the best Irish bar on the south side of Chicago, they intended the excursion to be a cultural enterprise, not a vomit-inducing pub crawl. "We've got five or six guys here who've brought their sons out with them," said Cummings. "It's about heritage, it's about tradition. We don't get belligerent. We're mostly lawyers, police officers, businessmen--just a lot of good guys from the south side."
The early tours were low-profile: the organizers picked a few bars in the southwest suburbs, collected enough cash from each judge to cover a pint at each, and voted on their merits on the bus between stops. But last year some Loop and River North bars heard about it and wanted in on the publicity. As the veteran judges were tired of going to the same places anyway, this year the founding trio decided a bit of redistricting was in order. So last Saturday 65 or so south-side Irish-Americans, a handful of Irish immigrants and Latinos, and one Jewish guy who likes beer set off on a new quest: to find "the best south-side Irish bar--in the world!"
The eight-hour, six-tavern odyssey began at 11:30 AM, deep in Chicago Ridge at Jack Desmond's, a modest, sunny pub at Ridgeland and Birmingham whose bar top was imported from the mother country. Pints were passed, foundations of soda bread were laid in stomachs, and Cummings, pulling off his sweater to reveal a priest's costume, granted a special dispensation to all who'd given up beer for Lent. "This is, after all, a holy enterprise," he said. The owner's wife, outfitted with fisherman's sweater and brogue, sent the men off to the bus with an old love song.
"Now, Jack Desmond's was a fine bar," Cummings said. He promised the crew he'd tell some "true stories"--long, blue jokes, often about funerals--if they'd settle down to rate the first contender in four categories: atmosphere, stock ("Was the Guinness piss?"), service ("Were they fed up with us or were they cordial?"), and decor.
There was one more stop south of the Loop: the Kerry Piper in Willowbrook, the champion two years running. Cummings said he was looking forward to the downtown bars, as the new candidates had wanted in badly enough to promise a decent "palm greasing." It looked like they'd have a rough time outbidding the Kerry Piper, though. The thump and whine of live drums and bagpipes poured from the bar as the lads filed in, the owner rubbed elbows with the Larkin Brothers onstage, and the Piper passed out custom T-shirts listing all the pubs on the circuit.
Jeff Levine--renamed "O'Levine" for the day--went at the buffet of corned beef and cabbage wearing an enormous puffy Guinness hat, courtesy of the bar. He was taking the bad Jewish jokes with good humor, as the papists were telling no end of tales at their own expense. He said it showed a lot of confidence for the Piper to list their rivals on their own shirts. Plastic cups with the bar's logo waited at the door so the judges could keep any unswallowed beer to drink on the long ride downtown; even so, they left reluctantly.
But back on the bus, the judges itemized deficiencies unrelated to official criteria: the Kerry Piper had poured no free shots, and no one had seen any female bartender skin. Bob Reidy, an amateur actor and professional lawyer who specializes in settling estates, said he's learned a lot about human nature by watching descendants hover over their dearly departeds' earthly goods. "These men can be bought," he predicted.
Cummings, who'd been trying to run the voting over the bus's faulty PA, jettisoned the mike in mock disgust-- "That's what you get when you have an Italian bus driver!"--and amicably screamed himself hoarse. "The Kerry Piper had no rival in years past," he said, but warned the judges not to give too many four-star ratings till they'd tasted the pork of the "very, very near north side."
"We're south-siders! We can't give the award to a north-side pub!" somebody yelled. "They're all queer up there!"
"Be ready to be treated like royalty," said Cummings.
Lakefront wind and snow whipped the men disembarking at the Chicago Hilton and Towers; they filed through the lobby to Kitty O'Shea's, a hotel bar touched up with Celtic bric-a-brac and dark wood.
Paul Wendt, who rolled his eyes when he admitted his brother George played Norm on Cheers, was backed against a glass partition, arms folded, as the bar had confined the group to the back of the room. The other patrons eyed the intrusion passively. Wendt saw somebody smoking and declined to find them an ashtray. "Just drop it on the rug," he growled. "I'm a rookie this year, so I guess I've got no right to say this, but why the hell is this place on the tour?" The free food at Kitty O'Shea's was limited to generic fried appetizers, but every cheese stick got consumed.
Someone tried to be nice about the decor: "Maybe it's supposed to be lace-curtain [genteel] Irish."
Three guys in their early 30s joked about scoring some coke later, amused by their elders' disappointment. "People think the south side is the center of the earth," said Steve Peake. "They think the Loop is the north side! The north side is a little more laid-back--you got your homos and your weirdos and whatever, but everybody likes each other. Black guy moves on your block, no problem, more power to him. On the south side, you get a black guy moves in, you've gotta sell five houses."
Next was Lizzie McNeill's, tucked under a condo building near North Pier; independently owned, it smelled like the nearby swimming pool but won points for giving the lads the run of the place and treating them to a performance by the senior girls from the Lavin-Cassidy school of Irish dance. Cummings said this was more like it--he'd wanted something "cultural" at each bar. The show didn't go on till the pints were handed out; when the thin recording of Irish music came on the judges hushed up and fought for sight lines with the internationally acclaimed troupe's sharp-elbowed mothers. They clapped and stomped, eventually falling in with the click of the delicate, nervous-faced dancers' shoes on the hardwood floor as, behind the girls, fresh footage of the brutal scaffolding crash at the Hancock flashed on a big-screen TV. The tour then boarded the bus for Fado, a two-story pub just down Clark from the Rock 'n' Roll McDonald's.
Fado is part of a chain with locations in Denver, Seattle, and Vegas; the name means "long ago" in Gaelic. The ground floor decor isn't hopelessly over-the-top; the motif would seem to be "nautical shanty." But the staff herded the group to the second floor, up a stairway and landing built to look like the hull of a ship, and into a murky "parlor" carefully choked with lace-curtain tchotchkes. The blond cocktail waitress's shirt stopped three inches shy of her waistband, and a bartender imported from Ireland sang an air in a painfully flat tenor, to hearty applause. Cummings stood on the bar and proposed a traditional toast: "Here's to women! Can't live with 'em--pass the pretzels." The judges roared. It was the second to last stop and they were drinking for the finish. Cummings confided that Fado was running neck and neck with the Kerry Piper; most thumbs were up, with the exception of young Peake's. "Fado is a Disneyland Irish pub," he said. "Everyone knows that. It's probably owned by some Jewish guy."
Levine, downing yet another Guinness, screwed up his eyes. "You know, if you wanna analyze this place, it's kind of weird and creepy. But in terms of a bunch of guys having a good time in a bar--eh."
Peake watched one judge chat up a dark-eyed cocktailer. "If your goal is to go to a bar when you've got a wife and kids and hit on a bartender, then this is it," he said. "It's all right if you've got nothing else to do. Personally I think I'd've had a better time with an eight ball and a bag of candy bars."
"Who shit?!" somebody laughed, climbing on the bus in a cloud of his own gas. Cummings stood before the lads yelling, "Was that the most beautiful Irish bar you've been to today?" and a small group replied by unveiling the bar stool they'd smuggled out under their overcoats. Levine had kept an even keel through taunts like "Oh shoe, my Lou, she married a Jew"--but when he discovered his cell phone was missing he barreled to the front of the bus.
"Pat, have you got my phone? No? Then someone else on this bus has my phone. I want my fucking phone!"
"Shut up, you fat fuck!" someone yelled back. "The one Jewish guy on this whole bus has to raise hell!" A bunch up front started singing "Hava Nagila"; the rest of the crew joined in as the thieves brandished the bar stool.
"I'm a token!" grumbled Levine, weaving back to his seat.
The last bar, Celtic Crossings, was graced with portraits of Wilde and Joyce. Cummings said the staff at Fado had conceded the Crossings had the best tap Guinness in town, but the spacious, somber storefront tavern at 751 N. Clark didn't stand a chance. The Kerry Piper-Fado debate was already raging, and the judges had more need for the Giordano's pizza they'd ordered than for beer. Somebody inadvertently insulted a one-legged man in the bathroom, mistaking him for a fellow judge and addressing him with too much familiarity; there was a bit of a scuffle. When the pizza was gone, the south-siders boarded the bus for home and tallied the votes. The winner: Fado Chicago, established 1997, was dead tied with the Kerry Piper--established 1997