It’s been a little more than four decades since Oak Park was known as the town where the “bars ended and the church steeples began,” according to former village clerk Ginie Cassin.
So it might not come as much of a surprise that when the village started allowing alcohol sales in 1973, the first liquor license approved went to Ascension Catholic Church for various social events.
What some Oak Parkers might be surprised to learn is that 41 years later, the village still is without an alcohol-only bar. While there are plenty of places for residents to go wet their whistles, a closer look reveals that every establishment in Oak Park still sells food as a requirement of holding a liquor license.
That all could change, though, following a request earlier this year from Village Trustee Peter Barber for the Liquor Control Review Board, the village’s advisory panel on alcohol sales, to study whether it makes sense to allow alcohol-only taverns into the village.
Liquor in the village – it’s been a long, strange trip
Oak Parkers had discussed allowing liquor sales for years, but in the early 1970s, local leaders, eager to compete with neighboring communities in attracting more restaurants to the village, created a blue-ribbon committee to determine whether to go wet, according to Cassin, 90.
She had just started her first year as village clerk in 1973, shortly after the first liquor ordinance was established. Cassin said the village was surrounded by communities that allowed bars and packaged liquor sales, but Oak Park had been dry for nearly a century.
Some establishments such as the Oak Park Club – long ago converted to condos on Oak Park Avenue — allowed residents to bring their own alcoholic beverages, but the local leaders “felt restaurateurs were not comfortable asking people to bring their own wine,” she said.
While the newly drafted liquor ordinance paved the way for liquor sales at restaurants in Oak Park, it would still be years before bars serving food would appear in the village.
After the first bar and restaurant liquor license was awarded to Dennis Murphy in 1979 for his restaurant Philander’s (now Barclay’s American Grille), the ordinance required that those purchasing alcoholic beverages also must purchase food. It also stipulated that the bar area be hidden from view of the restaurant customers and from the street.
“The thought was that if you had a place where you would take your family, it wasn’t seemly that your kids sat at the table and watched the goings on at the bar,” Cassin said.
The restriction requiring a partition to separate bars and restaurant dining rooms was not lifted until 2011, “Partly because it was unenforceable and overly restrictive for smaller restaurants or restrictive to a business plan that wanted to give patrons the choice to enjoy a beverage without requiring ordering food,” according to Liquor Control Review Board Chairman Victoria Scaman.
Murphy, now the owner of Poor Phil’s Bar and Grill, said that in the late 1970s, local leaders were interested in opening a new hotel in town to boost economic development.
“I approached the liquor board with the thinking that if a hotel wants to come to Oak Park, they are going to want a bar,” he said. Since there already was a hotel in town – The Carleton on Marion Street– Murphy approached the Liquor Control Review Board with the proposal to open a restaurant bar there. The approval, however, came with tight restrictions, Murphy said.
When Philander’s first opened its sidewalk café, for instance, “they demanded that whoever ordered a drink in the outside café have something to eat,” Murphy said. “We had a big sign that said, ‘If you’re going to drink outside, you gotta eat outside.'”
Concerns about the crime
Maintaining good taste and Oak Park’s moral standing was not the only concern on the minds of government officials in doling out liquor licenses, according to Cassin. She said that in the early days of the liquor ordinance, leaders were also concerned about alcohol sales providing an in-road for organized crime.
Cassin said as village clerk she would run applicants’ names past the Chicago Crime Commission before granting a liquor license and a couple of them came up with connections to the underworld. She said a former owner of the Oak Park Arms Hotel was associated with a suspect crime organization from the east coast. Cassin said the license was never granted, but it was also never rejected outright.
“We just strung them along; we never gave them a license,” she said.
Another license applicant was the owner of a business on the corner of Lake and Forest, who Cassin said, “looked like a great big toad.”
“The Chicago Crime Commission said, ‘We know the names and we know what their aliases are or whose wife put her name on everything instead of the husband,'” Cassin said. They, too, were never granted a license.
2014: A busy year for booze
Ten new liquor licenses were issued this year, which is no great departure from previous years in the village. The big difference, however, is the introduction of microbreweries and beer manufacturing in the village.
In early 2014, a group of investors under the name Noon Whistle proposed opening a craft beer manufacturing facility near the corner of Austin and Chicago avenues. The group was unable to work out a lease deal and ultimately located in west suburban Lombard.
Since then, plans for two other microbreweries have surfaced: Oak Park Brewing Company, which plans to open in 2015 at 155 S. Oak Park Ave., was granted a liquor license, and another microbrewery that will operate as a manufacturer with a tasting room has plans to open on Roosevelt Road.
Another group also is planning to open a “craft brew lounge” called Beer Shop at 1026 North Blvd., and is requesting a liquor license from the village.
Scaman said that group, headed by Anthony Compaglia, would include a tasting area where locals could drink specialty microbrews. Beer Shop’s website notes it aims to have 15 rotating taps as well as packaged beer to go.
“It would be a destination location for beer enthusiasts to come to Oak Park and find beer they can’t find anywhere else,” Scaman said.
The business wouldn’t serve food, which is a departure from the liquor ordinance, but, “they’ve reached out to restaurants to partner with to have food at that location,” according to Scaman.
“They’re not looking to open a bar but a specialty store for tasting,” she said.
The difference between Beer Shop’s business plan and bars that require food sales is subtle, but it’s one step closer to allowing alcohol-only taverns in the village.
The brew review
Scaman said the Liquor Control Review Board has just begun its review of allowing bars into Oak Park and aims to have it’s work complete and a recommendation to the village board by sometime before the end of 2015.
Village Trustee and Liquor Commissioner Adam Salzman said he believes a review of allowing bars in Oak Park is not really necessary “because there is a process in place” for reviewing applications.
“There’s no pending application for a bar,” he said, adding that he does not favor creating a category for it.
“If someone tried to locate a bar in town that served alcohol without food, I guess we would have to see what they are contemplating (first),” he said.
Meanwhile, long-time restaurant bar owner Murphy said he believes allowing taverns is a bad idea.
“I don’t know what need exists that (restaurant bars) don’t cover, except that tavern atmosphere and activity, which, I think, leads to problems,” Murphy said.
He noted that any privileges granted to tavern owners, such as the ability to stay open later, also should be granted to restaurant bar owners.
“If a tavern does not have to offer food, then I don’t think the existing restaurant bars in town need to offer food,” he said. “I think that would be an unfair advantage there.”