What's old is new again: Chicago uncorks Prohibition-era inspiration
Everything old in Chicago is new again. And nowhere is that more true than at The Glunz.
Walking into The Glunz Tavern is a bit like stepping back in time. Thing is, despite the 1910s-era sandwich menu on the wall, The Glunz Tavern has only been open since December.
The Glunz family has a long history in the building at 1202 N. Wells St., right next to the decorative gates welcoming you to Chicago's Old Town neighborhood. A tavern was opened in the space by Louis Glunz, the grandfather of Barbara Glunz, who owns the business these days with her son Christopher Donovan. (In 1918, Louis opened dance hall and hotel in Fredonia. The dance hall survives and can be seen at W4777 Hwy. 84.)
"The shop survived because it was a unique place," says Donovan. "It was a destination. But a lot of restaurants around closed and for a long time there was nothing around here. Just in the last 10 to 15 years there's been a huge amount of investment and now it's really reached a tipping point."
Louis Glunz Jr., Barbara's father, closed the bar at the dawn of Prohibition and focused instead on the family's retail operation next door. During the booze ban, the Glunz family sold medicinal alcohol and supplies for making wine at home, which was legal. When the 21st Amendment repealed the Prohibition, the Glunz family re-opened its liquor store and distribution business and the former tavern became little more than a storage space.
"The neighborhood is so strong now," says Donovan. "There's so much residential property around that that's really supporting us and that's, I think, the key to whether we do well or not is whether the neighborhood enjoys it."
It's hard to see how the neighborhood could resist. The Glunz has a vintage tavern vibe and an old world German immigrant feel but without the kind of excessive darkness and over-decoration that can make some of the longest-lived examples feel a bit oppressive.
Because the neighborhood only recently began to gentrify, the space has remained relatively untouched in the 90 years between iterations of The Glunz Tavern. Beneath wood paneling, Donovan found the original wainscoting. The original hardwood floors were protected for more than a century by a couple layers of paint. The same was true for the original tin ceiling.
Much of the decor – including vintage signs and hanging schoolhouse lights – was found in the building. The bar and a mirror were brought over from the Ambassador East when that institution was shuttered. An old menu board displaying a list of sandwiches was hung in the original Glunz Tavern.
"You get the feeling of warmth," says Donovan. "There's sort of a formula that designers get paid a lot to do and we stumbled upon it ourselves, where you walk in (and) you feel really comfortable."
The Glunz boasts friendly bartenders – like Colin, a true Chicago character, who holsters an armory of obscure film references that he unleashes like a machine gun set on spray – and a menu of delicious, no-nonsense European-influenced fare, like wiener schnitzel, frog legs, Coq au Riesling and gnocchi, alongside classic tavern favorites like burgers – of which Donovan is especially proud – deviled eggs and pretzels.
"(Customers) come in and just feel like, 'I could stay here for hours. I'd be perfectly contented.' That's the feeling people get here," says Donovan. "The sense of belonging and warmth and camaraderie."
CHICAGO BRINGS BACK THE SPEAKEASY
While Prohibition shuttered The Glunz, the 14-year ban on booze that began in 1919 sparked the era of the secret world of the speakeasy, especially in Chicago, where Capone and his contemporaries ran the show.
The Windy City's passion for the speakeasy has been rekindled in a big way lately.
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