Wanda Kurek and Guy Vanek
Wanda Kurek and Guy Vanek Credit: Lloyd DeGrane

Wanda Kurek was six months old when her mother started taking her to work at the bar. That was back in 1924. Her father, Stanley, had quit his job in the pickling division of the meatpacker Wilson & Co. to open his own tavern on the 4100 block of South Ashland. Back then Whiskey Row was lined with saloons servicing the slaughterhouse workers from the stockyards across the street.

Before that Wanda’s mother, Josephine, a Polish immigrant like her husband, had worked cleaning buildings, but after Stanley’s opened she became a full-time barmaid, and her children became full-time bar kids. The year Wanda turned ten and her sister Joan was born, Stanley bought the lot on the northwest corner of 43rd and Ashland. He tore down the building that was there, erected a new one, moved the family upstairs, and reopened the bar at street level.

Today you have to look hard at the two-story brick structure to notice there’s a business inside. You might catch a glimpse of a neon beer sign through the dark narrow windows, or see small groups of workers disappearing into the side door in the late morning. There’s no sign outside indicating that this is a place where you can get a cheap draft and a hot, hearty lunch. But every workday you can find truck drivers, managers from Tyson or Edsal Manufacturing, or guys from the bricklayers union bellied up to the bar or squeezed behind tables, powering down Wanda’s daily special—and maybe a cold one. Some of them have been coming for decades.

Stanley’s offered free lunch during the Depression—usually just sandwiches—but during World War II, when the stockyards ran around the clock and customers packed in three deep at the bar, Josephine started cooking, and charging money for, hot food. Wanda, who’s run the place since 1983 and still lives upstairs, uses her mother’s old recipes. She knows them by heart.

She wakes at six each morning and reads her Trib and Sun-Times before she starts the day’s cooking, all done on an O’Keefe & Merritt porcelain stove that’s almost 60 years old. She might make baked ham with raisin sauce, or roast pork with dumplings, stuffed cabbage and potato salad, or breaded chicken breast on buttered noodles, or Cornish hens. For six bucks you get a heaping plate with a vegetable or two, but on days when Wanda decides to make prime rib she charges seven. Soups—split pea, oxtail with barley, chicken noodle—run about a buck and a half a bowl. There are Vitner’s potato chips behind the bar, and if you want a root beer it’s Filbert’s, bottled right up the street.

When Wanda’s father died in 1957, her older brother Ted took over Stanley’s and kept it going after the stockyards and the other taverns disappeared. Prior to the 1968 Democratic National Convention, the city widened 43rd Street, reducing the sidewalk in front of the bar by half. That’s when trucks turning west from Ashland started running over the curb and taking out the Schlitz sign that hung over the front door. After four or five, “they wouldn’t give us any more globes,” says Wanda’s niece, Maria Kosinski. Ted decided he didn’t need them anyway. In the late 80s, a few years after Wanda took over, a car plowed into the plate glass window on the Ashland side, and ever since the bar has done just fine without any signage.

Trucks continued to jump the curb—the sidewalk is marked with tire tracks. Last year a semi knocked a light pole into the building, sending long cracks running down the walls in Wanda’s apartment. On two occasions the city sank posts into the concrete to ward off traffic. The second time, a year ago, regulars started betting on how long they’d last. It was four days.

Then, early in December, Wanda’s brother-in-law—and Maria’s father—George Kosinski, was struck and killed by a semi as he headed into the bar to meet his wife for lunch. Wanda says she still hasn’t heard anything from the city or ward about the hazard. “When I called they said city engineers are working on it,” she says. “They’ve been working on it since 2005, so maybe by 2010 they’ll do something about it.”

Every weekday around 10 AM, bartender Guy Vanek shows up. He’s been coming in since 1979, when he was underage, and gradually took over from the old-timers who worked behind the bar. He and Wanda bicker constantly; Vanek teases her about being cheap. Still, he’s like family—she does his laundry sometimes. He reckons he’s only the seventh nonrelative in the tavern’s 72 years to touch the cash register. The mahogany bar still has its union label, and the 1945 Rock-Ola jukebox still plays Tony Bennett. Not much else has changed. But back in 2005 Wanda promised she’d get two flat-screen TVs and cable if the White Sox made it to the World Series. “They did, so I had to,” she says.

Vanek attributes the bar’s longevity to the force of Wanda’s personality. She knows everyone who comes in and everything that’s going on in the neighborhood. “It’s the world according to Wanda,” he says. “Right is right, wrong is wrong. You’re an asshole? Get out!”

Around one o’clock, customers start to disappear, and the place remains empty until midafternoon. It’s usually closed by early evening, and it’s not open at all on weekends.

Maria Kosinski plans to take over the bar from her auntie, but that won’t be anytime soon if it’s up to Wanda. “If I quit I’ll be like all those old ladies sitting there with their mouths open,” she says. “That ain’t gonna happen to me. No way. I don’t intend to quit. I intend to keep bossing others around.”   

For more on food and drink, see our blog The Food Chain at chicagoreader.com.