Chicago has always been a great big "Joe's Place." In our youth it seemed Joes were everywhere--on both sides of the street and on both sides of the family. My dad's Uncle Joe taught me how to play whist and pour beer down the side of a glass. My Grandpa Joe taught me how to throw a curveball and insult all ethnic groups. My mom's Uncle Joe, a Chicago police detective, taught me that the crime syndicate was "just another business" and that politicians and policemen had much more in common than the first three letters of their job titles. Whatever you needed to know, whatever you wanted to buy, it seemed you could always get it from a guy named Joe.
Thus we regret having to report a hitherto unnoted phenomenon, a dramatic increase in Chicago Joelessness. For the fifth time in six years, the Chicago phone book shows a sharp decline in Chicago businesses named "Joe's." In fact, according to figures compiled by Reader researcher Tom Terranova, places named "Joe's" have declined by almost 30 percent over the past six years--from 75 in 1985 to 53 in 1990, at least according to the Reuben H. Donnelley Corporation.
If, as the old song says, "Happiness is just a thing called Joe," Chicago is getting gloomier by the minute.
What's worse, Joelessness is probably growing at an even higher rate than the phone listings indicate, as places once run by Joes are taken over by No-Joes who keep the old business name--guys like Han of Joe's Shoe Repair (3105 W. Lawrence), and Stan of Joe's Hardware (2659 W. Division), and Joh of Joe's Merchandise (4664 N. Broadway).
"People don't seem to name their children Joe anymore," said Joe Marzec, owner of Joe's on Broadway, a neighborhood bar at 3563 N. Broadway. "When I was a kid everybody's family had a Joe and a Mary. Now it's Jason and Megan."
Unwilling to contemplate dealing with a cop named Jason, or ordering a thin-crust from "Jason's Pizza," we headed west to 2254 W. Irving Park, to a fairly new restaurant, just two years old, named Chicago Joe's.
It had a warm, cozy feeling, but it looked a little too clean and too tasteful to be run by any ordinary Joe. And, as we feared, it wasn't. The owners are Chuck Kowalski, the food guy, and Al Rompza, the design guy (design guy? at Joe's?). There is no "Chicago Joe." Never was.
Chicago Joe's is one of those blue-collar theme restaurants. It's dedicated to the average Joe on the street, according to Kowalski, but it's the kind of place where Governor Jim Thompson eats chili--a place where Chicago Cubs equipment manager Yosh Kawano stops to eat after a game. The restaurant's namesake is a mythical figure, an ordinary-guy icon, and the restaurant is like a museum of Chicago Joe iconography--for example, pictures of "Joe" playing handball at the Irving Park YMCA.
Joe an icon? Chicago Joe's campy nostalgia? Say it ain't so, Joe--wherever you may be.