Yes, Sir, Senator: A Bootlegger’s Palace Becomes a Brewer’s Paradise
By Paul Durica ( from issue 009 )
Over eighty years after repeal, Prohibition and the trade in illegal alcohol its adoption promoted remains closely associated with the city of Chicago. What other city has as one of its most globally-known former residents a bootlegger and gangster, Al Capone? In what other place can tourists take an Untouchables tour led by the likes of Shoulders and Johnny Three Knives? Every bar of a certain age claims with pride to have survived the 1920s as a speakeasy although few can offer up any evidence to support this belief. As Northwestern University’s Bill Savage, who teaches a class on “The City That Drinks,” has observed, the successful speakeasies never got caught, while those who made the papers on account of a raid quickly shuttered. As I’ve written about in Mash Tun, a lot of the illegal industry involved homebrewers with so-called “beer flats” dotting the city. There is one verifiable speakeasy that not only survived Prohibition but managed to capitalize on its illicit fame to become one of Chicago’s most beloved and long-lived restaurants: Barney’s Market Club.
Rotund and gregarious Barney Kessel enters the public record in a scene straight out of the Jimmy Stewart film Call Northside 777. In 1928, Barney’s restaurant (also an illegal bar, as the newspapers make clear) was held up, and one of the three robbers, Hyman Greenberg, was shot and killed by a police officer, Lt. John Kelley, who’d popped in for a backroom beer. Greenberg, 23, had worked for a printing press not far from Barney’s and had worn “smoked glasses” to conceal his identity. He was a member of one of the numerous immigrant communities residing near the restaurant on the city’s west side not far from Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr’s Hull House settlement. Not long after the botched robbery, Barney would find himself on the wrong side of the law, arrested for operating a speakeasy and sentenced to sixty days in the Ogle County Jail.
Exhibiting the charm used on the connected and powerful throughout his career, Barney managed to escape his cell for twenty of those days, a minor scandal that resulted in the county sheriff being fined for failure to enforce prohibition laws and that suggested, as did the Greenberg shooting, that the relationship between local law enforcement and bootleggers wasn’t always antagonistic. Despite the arrest and brief imprisonment, Barney managed to open a second, larger restaurant in the late 1930s, right in the center of Chicago’s wholesale market district.
Barney’s Market Club is the restaurant most Chicagoans remember. It specialized in steak, lobster, and smelt. Bowls of radishes and green onions greeted visitors as they sat down at their tables, one of them, the so-called “Holy Corner,” reserved for men of the cloth. Eddie the harmonica player entertained as he wandered among the tables, some inside, some out, for Barney’s claimed to be city’s first sidewalk café. Overseeing it all, Barney, a white apron tied tight around his ever-expanding center, barked out, “Put him on the payroll” or “Yes, sir, Senator,” to the delight of patrons. Politicians, like priests, frequented the Market Club, and the story goes that Barney, never able to keep straight who held what office, referred to them all as “Senator.” Whether the story is truer than the numerous ones about Chicago speakeasies is difficult to tell, but as a marketing strategy, it worked: Barney’s Market Club quickly established itself as one of Chicago’s most colorful restaurants. Barney got in trouble with the law again in the middle of World War II for selling more steaks than his ration points allowed, but, as was the case in his bootlegger days, this infraction made him only more popular with the public. A diet of his own steaks and lobster eventually caught up with him, and Barney died of a heart attack in 1951. His son-in-law took over the business and employees at the Market Club continued to call everyone “Senator” until its closing in 1996.
While Barney Kessel managed to not only survive but also thrive in the aftermath of Prohibition, the same could not be said of Chicago’s brewing industry. In 1900, sixty breweries operated in the city. The passage of the 18th Amendment and the Volstead Act that brought about Prohibition ended the existence of all but a handful. Those that survived succumbed, one by one, as national brands such as Miller and Anheuser-Busch took over the market. Then, starting in the late 1980s, craft breweries, Goose Island chief among them, started to appear. Today Chicago has over 150 craft breweries, with more opening each month.
One of them, Haymarket Pub and Brewery, occupies the old Barney’s Market Club with 11 of its own award-winning craft beers and 13 guests drafts on tap. “We searched around town for over a year looking for a spot that was both a good location and also steeped in Chicago’s rich history,” says brewmaster and co-owner Pete Crowley. “When we walked into Barney’s old space in the Haymarket Square, we knew instantly we had found it.” The brewery may take its name from a different part of Chicago’s past but, through Barney’s Market Club, connects back to Prohibition. Haymarket makes one grateful, with each sip of its Speakerswagon Pilsner or Mathias Imperial IPA, that those unenlightened times are behind us and that we can all still feel like Senators.