By Paul Turner
In an area full of bars that seem to have purchased a consonant a la Wheel of Fortune and converted themselves into barns, herding Cub fans in and feeding them beer in souvenir plastic cups, Jimmy and Tai’s Wrigleyville Tap has always stood as a beacon of civility, a refuge from the frat house. Across and a little up Clark Street from Wrigley Field, the Tap has served its share of Cub fans, but it served them their beer in glasses. Says bar founder Jimmy Jones, “I like to think that we do have a soul.”
Jones never set out to establish a landmark. He’d worked for the Edwardo’s pizza chain, and when he bought the place in the early 80s, he planned to make it into “an Edwardo’s, really. I wanted to copy everything I learned there and make it just like that.” To his credit, Jones failed miserably. Now, after 15 years, the bar’s shutting down, falling to the inexorable march of gentrification. Saturday, October 30, is its final day of operation.
Jones lives in Wheaton now, but he’s spent most of his life in the neighborhood. He grew up as one of six children raised by his mother in an apartment kitty-corner from what’s now Murphy’s, by the bleacher entrance to the ballpark. He graduated from Lake View High in 1970 and went straight into the army. Jones served during the Vietnam war, but he never got closer to battle than Germany. He married his high school sweetheart and then was discharged in 1972. He came back to Chicago and, because the government “paid my whole tuition and gave me 500 bucks a month spending money,” he enrolled at Northeastern. After graduating in 1976 (and divorcing his wife shortly after) he got the job that would start him on the path toward tavern ownership, managing stand-up bars at O’Hare. In 1980 he went to work for Edwardo’s, managing a franchise in Mount Prospect. He also began planning for his own place, saving money and scouting locations. In 1984 he spotted an ad in the Tribune for a bar with a kitchen near Wrigley. He bought the equipment and liquor license for $25,000, signed the lease, and went into business with his former stepfather (Tai, who’s been out of the picture for ten years).
The Tap, which had previously housed “a Puerto Rican gay bar, a German restaurant, and a dart bar,” opened in August 1984, stocked–illegally–with six bottles of booze and a couple cases of beer purchased from Crown Liquors, down the street. (He quickly got in line with distributors, the only legitimate way for a tavern owner to buy his hooch.)
Just two years earlier Cub manager Lee Elia had blasted Cub fans as unemployed losers, but 1984 was an entirely different story. The Cubs were in first place, and Harry Caray was bellowing on WGN about the joys of Wrigley Field and the virtues of baseball in the sunshine on a summer day. The area surrounding the ballpark had begun its transformation into the tourist and town-house lollapalooza it is today.
The Wrigleyville Tap caught on fast with employees from Wrigley, particularly the crowd-control staff, and the ushers started bringing junk for Jones to hang on the wall behind the bar. “The Cubs were very loose about player-employee fraternization in those days,” says Jones. “Pretty soon I was getting all kinds of stuff”–cracked bats, game jerseys, that sort of thing. Jim Frey used to come in and buy drinks for the staffers who hung out there. And some players dropped in, like Lee Smith and Leon Durham. A bartender, “a wonderful Puerto Rican woman” named Provi, lived upstairs and cooked dishes from the island. Word spread among Puerto Rican ballplayers, Cubs and visitors alike, and many came by for Provi’s home cooking. “Manny Trillo, Ivan DeJesus, lots of others would stop in when they were in town.”
Things were pretty quiet during the off-season, but a neighbor helped change all that. “God bless the Metro. They really have had a bigger impact on my business than the Cubs. And the people they bring in are better drinkers and better tippers too.” Alongside the baseball memorabilia hang autographed photos of artists who have played Metro and ended up next door at the Tap, many brought by “Jolly,” the legendary roadie and longtime occupant of the apartment over the bar. Jolly’s status as a Tap icon is topped only by that of the irascible Floyd Saunders, who’s tended bar for 12 years. One regular, Eddie Vedder, was enjoying a beer and watching Jeopardy with Saunders not long ago when two female patrons did him the honor of playing a Pearl Jam song on the jukebox. After a few seconds, Saunders hit his override button behind the bar and shut off the music, snapping “nobody wants to listen to that crap.”
This summer Vedder played a private show in the back room for another bartender’s birthday party. Several Cub players came by for the party, including Kerry Wood, who gave Jones a pleasant surprise. “A lot of times these players are spoiled and expect you to buy them drinks. He said ‘No, Jim, I want to go get you a beer. Stay here and listen to the music.’ And the only player I’ve ever seen buy a drink for the fans was Luis Gonzalez. He bought a drink for everybody in the bar once. What a nice guy.”
Jones got a less pleasant surprise last spring. He was expecting to renew his usual five-year lease when he got a phone call from Fred Hoffman, who owns a string of upscale bars and restaurants including Alumni Club, Excalibur, and Magnum’s. “He told me, ‘I hate to tell you this, but it’s business. I bought the building and you’re out.’ I never even knew the building was for sale. If my landlord would have offered it to me first, I don’t know if I could’ve gotten the money together. Several people have since told me they would’ve backed me….I’ve had so many people come up and tell me that they met their wife or husband here.” Jones chuckles, “Or that they’ve had sex here. I once walked in on this girl going down on a guy in the back. I just left them alone.” Jones himself met his current wife at the bar. “She used to come in with her boyfriend and hang out with me when I tended bar. Then one day she comes in without the boyfriend and I ask why and she says he’s history. We had a bowling team that bowled that night at Marigold and we needed somebody and I asked her if she wanted to fill in. That led to a few drinks and the drinks led to…”
Last week Hoffman bought Jones’s liquor license and equipment too, but all his memorabilia, from the obscure baseball cards stuck in the cigarette machine to the Keith Moreland bat and the autographed pictures of Joe Strummer and the Reverend Horton Heat, are going into storage. A Bill Buckner uniform is going to Vedder, who’s been pining for it for years. Jones says he’s looking for a building in the area, this time to buy.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Yvette Marie Dostatni.