Go ahead, admit it. At times we’ve all looked down our noses at Berwyn, our neighbor to the south. Often fixed in our collective consciousness as a strictly blue collar zone of bungalows, babushkas and burritos, Berwyn is frequently perceived as a tough-edged town resistant to change.
But change is no stranger there. Much of Berwyn’s strength lies in its remarkable ability to adapt and thrive while continually redefining itself.
Gas is going sky-high, as if you didn’t know. So save some cash next time you grow restless for a little field trip and truck on down to Berwyn for some change-of-pace shopping, dining and sightseeing. I guarantee you’ll have a good time.
Berwyn began in the 19th century as two separate communities with vast stretches of marshland and onion farms between. By the early 1900s, this booming municipality successfully kept industry at bay while remaining a strictly residential development. As thousands of bungalows were constructed in the 1920s, the “City of Homes,” as it became known, was the fastest-growing community in the United States.
The geographic layout of Berwyn is quite easy to grasp. East-west streets are consecutively numbered from 12th Street (Roosevelt Road) to 39th Street (Pershing Road), with just a couple thoroughfares inserted, such as Windsor Avenue along the south side of the train tracks. The north-south streets, from Lombard Avenue west to Harlem Avenue, are just as easy to follow, since each one uses the same name as in Oak Park.
You may already know this border zone. Believe it or not, a century ago north Berwyn was unofficially part of Oak Park. Residents from 12th Street to 16th Street sent their kids to Oak Park schools and received mail addressed to “South Oak Park.” This borderline district boomed with saloons and roadhouses during the century-long “dry period” of Oak Park history.
Many people are aware that Berwyn was solidly Czech for nearly a century. But there was also heavy Italian migration into north Berwyn beginning in the early 1960s when many Taylor Street residents were displaced by the construction of the University of Illinois. Other traditionally Italian neighborhoods were uprooted by an increasing influx of African Americans into the West Side. Successful businesses like Turano Bakery (6501 Roosevelt Road) were established in Berwyn at this time.
Gina’s Italian Ice, 6737 Roosevelt Road (484-0944)
The Italian-born proprietor, Gina Tremonte, has been selling her cool, refreshing “ices” for three decades, She offers 10 flavors, but purists prefer the lemon”complete with tiny shreds of peel and shards of lemon pulp. It’s sweet, tart and tangy. There are four sizes, from $1.50 to the $6 family size.
FitzGerald’s, 6611-6615 Roosevelt Road (788-2118)
This music venue is a major Berwyn success story, well known to Oak Parkers. Family-owned and operated, FitzGerald’s offers top bands playing every style of
music from blues to zydeco. For over 25 years the place has enjoyed a national reputation for live music in a friendly setting. There’s no dress code, drink minimum, or reserved seating, and it’s fully wheelchair accessible. Doors open at 7 p.m. Closed Mondays. FitzGerald’s Side Bar next door offers a full grill menu.
Berwyn’s principal commercial area, this street has long reflected the city’s ethnic heritage. So many Czech businesses and financial institutions were once located here, the strip was known as the “Bohemian Wall Street.” Streetcars ran down the center of the median. It was named for Czech-born Chicago mayor, Anton J. Cermak, the architect of the legendary Democratic machine, who took a fatal bullet intended for President Franklin Roosevelt in 1933. Today along Cermak there are more Mexican stores and restaurants than Czech, but business is booming.
Old-Fashioned Candies, 6210 Cermak Road (788-6669)
Since the 1960s, the Brunslik family has been making their own wonderful chocolates. If you need some special molded figure, whether it’s a baby bottle or a locomotive, these guys will fix you up. Several of their antique chocolate molds date from the 1800s. Their biggest sellers are the chocolate-dipped strawberries, which cost $13.95 a pound. The shop sold 1,500 pounds of them on Valentine’s Day. The Brunsliks offer a full line of salt-free and sugar-free candies, too.
Vesecky’s Bakery 6634 Cermak Road
Back in the day, there were dozens of Czech bakeries in Berwyn. Family-owned Vesecky’s, which opened in the 1920s, is one of the few survivors. Swarms of customers show up early, take a number, and wait their turn for Bohemian-style rye break, three kinds of kolacky with either cheese, jam, or poppy-seed filling, and Houska.
The WPA mural in the Berwyn Post Office, 6625 Cermak Road
During the Great Depression, the federal government financed many unemployed artists to produce murals for public buildings that would celebrate aspects of the American way of life. “In the Cool of the Evening,” by WPA muralist Richard Haines, depicts an ethnic picnic, with a small gathering of 1930s folk listening to an accordion player.
Castle Gas, 2211 Clarence Ave.
Check out the 1920s filling station with its castellated design and rough red brick. The goal back then was to disguise gas stations so they’d blend into the neighborhood. Today this unique structure is an auto repair shop.
The Berwyn National Bank, southwest corner of Cermak Road and Oak Park Avenue
This formidable structure, standing empty now for years, was built in 1926 when banks were supposed to look like Greek temples. The decorative frieze around the top, complete with steer heads, says it all: “SECURITY … STRENGTH … STABILTY.” The adjacent storefronts were all razed last year. The bank now stands alone on a vast vacant lot, awaiting its fate near the top of the list of “Ten Most Endangered Historic Places” of the Landmark Preservation Council of Illinois.
“The Spindle,” Cermak Road at Harlem Avenue in Cermak Plaza
Don’t pretend you haven’t noticed the “cars on a spike” outdoor sculpture in the middle of the parking lot. In 1989 the mall owner, a national patron of the arts, paid sculptor Dustin Schuler $75,000 for the attention-grabbing stack of eight full-sized automobiles skewered on a huge vertical spindle. Citizens wanted the piece taken down immediately, complaining the towering work attracted pigeons, which it does. But their protest subsided once the sculpture appeared in the movie Wayne’s World. I understand Berwyn police dispatchers like to send rookies out to the plaza to investigate the “eight-car pile-up.”
D’Andrea Italian Market, 7055 Cermak Road (484-8121)
Though Cermak Plaza was one of the first outdoor malls in the region in 1956, today its stores are rather unexciting. But this wonderful market on the east end is like a little bit of Taylor Street. You can purchase Italian groceries, from gallon tins of olive oil to jugs of “paisano” wine. They’ve got homemade frozen stuff, too, like 2-pound bags of potato gnocchi for $4.95. There’s ready-to-eat deli fare and daily specials that can be eaten at tables. Friday, for instance, there’s “uovo pepperole” (pepper and egg sandwich) served on French bread with pasta salad and a soda for $4.99. A bottle of Anisette liqueur (“Perfect on the rocks,” I was told) costs $7.99. They also cater everything from cannoli to cavatelli.
Czech Plaza, 7016 Cermak Road
Ethnic restaurants are often a bargain. There used to be a slew of Bohemian eateries along 22nd Street but most, alas, have closed up shop. Czech Plaza, however, while not high on trendy ambiance, still offers tasty food, generous portions and comfortable prices. Just don’t plan on making a late night stop here; they close at 8 p.m. The many daily specials are wonderful. On Tuesdays, for instance, you can order beef goulash with noodles for $6.75. Each dinner comes with homemade rye bread, soup, potatoes or dumplings, sauerkraut or sweet/sour cabbage, and your choice of dessert.
The Depot District
The 1890 Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad station, at Oak Park Avenue and the tracks, was erected by Berwyn’s two real estate speculator founders in an attempt to lure upscale Chicagoans to settle in their new community. Rescued from demolition and restored in 1987, the depot continues to serve hundreds of commuters daily. Initially there were separate waiting rooms for men and women, since most ladies found men’s cigar smoke offensive.
Berwyn Train Depot, 6801 Windsor Ave. (484-6534)
The 115-year-old railroad station is only open weekdays from 5:30 a.m. until 1:30 p.m. If you wish to hop a train to the Loop at other hours, you purchase your ticket on board.
Olive or Twist, 6906 Windsor Ave.
This year-old martini and dessert bar is an intimate, sophisticated nightspot. There’s a jazz combo on Tuesdays and a jazz pianist on Fridays from 9:30 to 11:30 p.m. There are several pages of martinis on the menu, from mango madness to chocolate mint. The Tuesday night specials are fruit-flavored martinis.
Arnie Salerno’s Restaurant and Pizzeria, 3248 Grove Ave. (484-3400)
Salerno’s has been a Berwyn favorite for 40 years. This new two-story location has three huge dining rooms, replacing the original Salerno’s that had been on 16th Street since the 1960s. Their pizza put them on the map. But the lengthy menu of wonderful “old world pasta dishes” will tempt you, too. The tasty eggplant parmigiana, served with spaghetti or mostaccioli, costs $8.25. A variety of summer drinks are priced at $3.59. Salerno’s closes at 11 p.m. during the week, midnight on Fridays and Saturdays.
Fillmore Used Bookstore, 6834 Windsor Ave. (749-6771)
Second-hand bookshops are becoming rare. This one, chock full of cookbooks, old comic books, true crime paperbacks, military history, coffee table picture books and more, is staffed by volunteers. It’s a not-for-profit operation that supports Community Care, a local mental health program.
Grounds for Appeal, 3242 Oak Park Ave. (749-2233)
Berwyn may not have a Starbucks or a Caribou, but they’ve got this eclectic contemporary coffeehouse located in a 1922 building directly across from the sprawling MacNeal Hospital complex. The logo says it all: “Here Coffee is a Celebration.” An ample menu lists everything from toasted bagels to signature smoothies. There are poetry readings and Saturday evening entertainment. On Wednesdays, psychic advisor Lynda Spino does individual readings for $20 (reservations required.)
Cabin Fever, 3204 Grove Ave.
Just north of the tracks, this bar features antlers, deer heads and stuffed bass on the wall. With music and dancing, Cabin Fever resembles a rustic roadhouse. On Sunday afternoons, there’s a free buffet. D.J. Tee Kae works Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. There are lots of daily specials. On Mondays, for instance, domestic drafts are 75 cents. I’d recommend ordering a grilled chicken breast sandwich ($3) and onion rings ($1.25) to go, and heading over to Proksa Park.
Proksa Park, 31st Street at Home Avenue
Berwyn boasts eight beautiful parks. The largest, Proksa Park, was named for Joseph Proksa, a longtime park district superintendent, who in 1929 began turning these 17 1/2 acres into one of the prettiest parks in the Midwest. Proksa himself built the berms, then planted all the trees and flowers. There are lighted tennis courts, horseshoe courts, baseball diamonds, a playground, two picnic groves, several ponds, a greenhouse, and a creek running through the middle. The park closes at 10 p.m. No dogs or alcoholic beverages allowed.
The Arthur Dunham House (1905), 3131 Wisconsin Ave.
Soon to celebrate its centennial, this remarkable Prairie School house could hold its own on any Wright Plus tour. It’s listed on the National Register of Historic Homes. It was designed by Talmadge & Watson, a firm who also did much Prairie work in Oak Park. The privately owned residence features an attached garage, a unique feature for that period.
McDonough’s Red Top, 6601 26th St. at East Avenue (788-1120)
Hot dog stands are a dime a dozen in this region, but this hot dog hut, situated in an old 1920s filling station with a bright red roof, offers other fare besides the Vienna all-beef dogs ($1.50). It’s run by a couple of local women who make their own soup and chili ($2.25). The tacos ($1.70) are popular, too as are the real “soft serve” ice cream cones.
Berwyn Health District Building, 6600 26th St.
One of the most obvious and lasting legacies from Roosevelt’s New Deal are the buildings constructed by the Public Works Administration. This 1939 structure, designed by a Berwyn architect, has a flat roof and broad horizontal emphasis that creates the streamlined effect now often dubbed “art moderne.”
Berwyn Tastee-Freez, 6621 26th St.
This popular drive-in has employed generations of teens and provided families with delicious diversions on hot summer nights since the 1950s. The structure won the 2003 Berwyn Historical Society Preservation Award. There are 15 different shakes and three sizes of dipped cones available. For $3.99 you can enjoy a huge Banana Royal, a hot fudge and banana concoction popular since teens were rocking around the clock.
City Hall, 6700 26th St.
This 1939 “art moderne” style building was erected in the Roosevelt period with the aid of the WPA.
The Ogden Avenue Corridor
Originally this diagonal street that bisects south Berwyn had been a much-traveled Native American trail that led from the hinterland down to the lakefront. In the early 19th century, Chicago’s first mayor (William Butler Ogden) had the route planked, creating a heavily traveled stagecoach route. In the 1920s the road became the first leg of historic Route 66. At that time, when America began its love affair with the automobile, Route 66 was the best highway to use for crossing the nation. Today there’s a lot more on Ogden Avenue than auto dealerships, diners and gas stations.
Cigars & Stripes, 6715 Ogden Ave.
This bar is a real good time, if a little smoke doesn’t bother you. It’s a funky, friendly mix, with a vast selection of cigars and
flaming hot sauces. There’s live entertainment, too. Have Ronnie the tattooed bartender fix you up with a stogie or a Bloody Mary. A backyard beer garden
is in the works. They also host a popular “open mike” comedy night on Wednesdays. Don’t miss their bold new mural depicting Berwyn, complete with mushrooms and bungalows, on the west side of the building.
Novi’s Italian Beef, 6746 Ogden Ave. (749-0895)
There are lots of beef joints, but this drive-in’s a favorite among longtime Berwynites. Open since the 1960s, Novi’s offers a full menu of non-beef classics, too, such as the Italian chicken rolls for $6.85. Breast of chicken is rolled and stuffed with ricotta, provolone and parmesan cheeses, then served on a bed of angel hair pasta and topped with Novi’s special marinara sauce. Vegetarian dishes are featured, too, and there are homemade desserts, like cheesecake, tiramisu and éclairs.
Berwyn’s Toy Trains, 7025 Ogden Ave. (484-4384)
Like they used to say about the circus, this place is for “children of all ages.” It’s like stepping back into one’s childhood, except for the modern prices, of course. It’s common to spot more middle-aged men browsing and “testing” the trains and toys than it is kids. The staff is friendly, knowledgeable and accommodating. The huge model railroad rivals the one at the Museum of Science and Industry.