When I was doing some freelance work, I wrote a couple pieces for Centerstage Chicago as part of its “Out From Behind the Bar” series, which were interviews with local bartenders. Without getting to into Chicago’s history, this is a tavern town. Not so much now, but certainly before. There are some amazing stories out there, and it’s a shame there aren’t enough venues for them. Moreover, there wasn’t room for everything in the published pieces, and some great stories got dropped for space.
Tonight I was at the Village Tap, and ran into John Talley, who I interviewed for a BTB piece a while back. As I was sitting there tonight, I thought it was a crime that some of his stories would never see the light of day. The full interview is a lot of fun, though some of it was off the record. So here’s a combination of my original edit, combined with the piece as it originally ran.
Truth be told, the whole reason I’m posting this is for the “worst night working here” story.
Life in the Village with John Talley
Storytelling with the Village Tap’s longtime bartender
Over the past few years, strollers and dogs have replaced the gangs that used to hang out on the street corners of Roscoe Village. Yet the Village Tap – and bartender John Talley – remain.
Often cited for its award-winning, year-round beer garden, the bar resides in a space with a long, alcoholic history, dating back to the 1930s. The atmosphere changes depending on the night, or who’s behind the bar, but the warm wood and exposed brick give patrons a feeling of coming home.
Like the bar, Talley’s own history is closely tied to the neighborhood. With the exception of a yearlong motorcycle trek down to South America, he’s worked at the Village Tap for the last 13 years, not too far from where his father and grandfather grew up.
“It afforded me to go to school, to buy my own place, to take off for a year, all that kind of stuff,” he says. “In any job, that’s all you’re looking for.”
Best drink in the house: “Probably the Bloody Marys. I make my own mix. People come in and ask for that on Saturdays and Sundays, for sure. Nothing fancy. Some people like to put meats and cheeses into it, but I don’t do any of that. It’s more in the ratios. I think Bloody Marys should be spicy, but I don’t make it super spicy right away. It should have a sweet spice. Horseradish, Tabasco, steak sauce, pepper, that’s about it. I have it down to how many shakes of each I put in the mix.
The patron most likely to score a free drink is: “Somebody that doesn’t ask for one. Or says it’s their birthday right off the bat. Anybody that’s very nice and polite and tips well the first couple of times, that’ll get you a free drink.”
Little known fact about this joint: “It’s all in what it used to be, not what it is anymore. The whole neighborhood was rough, even when I came here. I used to see kids on their bikes doing ‘bike-bys,’ getting shot. It wasn’t that long ago. When I first started here, we used to have little Pac-Man/Asteroid tabletops. Every tabletop was a video game. There used to be a bowling machine against the wall, we used to have pinball. We used to have an old English phone booth that never worked.”
For good grub before or after a shift, you hit up: “I’m so cheap, I usually just get my shift meal here before I start. I’m a sucker for the burger or I’ll usually get the special. Most of the recipes come up from Jak’s Tap. Wednesdays, I always get the pork chop. Today [Sunday] I didn’t eat the brisket. I had a BLT because someone had one back there and it looked good. I’m friends with a lot of people in the neighborhood so I’ll go over to Volo sometimes.”
When you’re not boozing here, you prefer to patronize: “I’ll go to Four Moon. Lately, because I moved to Uptown, I’ll go up to Holiday Club because I know all the people there. I don’t go to the 4 o’clock bars anymore. People say ‘What are you doing after work?’ I’m sitting right here at the end of the bar, I’m having my two shift drinks, and then I’m calling a cab and going home. I’ve been doing the microbrew thing for so long, I got burnt out on it. I’ll taste everything, but I can’t drink all the hoppy ales or it’ll stick in my mouth the whole night. So I’ll drink Guinness or a stout or a porter or Sprecher Black.”
Another bartender/owner we should know is: “Aaron Watkins, who worked here. Everybody still misses him; he was the best bartender. He passed away a couple years ago last summer. He was just open, honest, and didn’t give a fuck. Died of a really rare form of cancer; it was at stage three or four when they found it. Within a month and a half, he was dead. But he was one of the people in this bar that people would come to see all the time.”
“[And] Sparky at Four Moons Tavern. He’s been in the neighborhood forever. He got grandfathered in at Four Moon. When they sold that place – it used to be Kokopelli – one of the stipulations was that the old owner told the new owner, “You gotta keep this bartender.” He can make anything, he’s a good listener and talker. He gives sage advice. He has the persona of a professional bartender, but he’s also surly and drinks a lot while he works. So he’s what you would expect from a bartender.”
The worst night working here was: “Two years ago, I was working when we had the TV put in. Somebody forgot to screw the top adjustment thing on. I’m bartending in here on a Saturday and we’re full. Two girls I know who are regulars are sitting at the end of the bar, watching TV when BOOM! It fell straight down on the bar in front of them and cracked. You can still see the indentation of a shot glass there. They fell off their barstools, the TV is now lying on the ground, I almost have a heart attack because it’s so loud, everybody is freaking out. I take the TV, put it in the back. About 10-15 minutes later some guy comes running from the back yelling ‘Call 911, call 911!’ And I’m like ‘No, it’s OK, everybody’s OK.’ He says ‘No, somebody just had a heart attack.’ There was a 50-year class reunion in the back and some old guy had a heart attack. So right after that happened, I had the ambulance come in and they’re wheeling a guy out in a mask. That was bad.”
The surest way to get banned from the bar is to: “Starting fights with everybody. Not literal fights, but talking shit every time you walk in the bar. Just being an ass. When you walk in and everybody moans? That can get you banned. You’re bad for business.”
If I wasn’t doing this, I’d be: “Teaching, that’s an easy one. Or travel around the world on my motorcycle. That’s what I’d be doing, dreamwise. Practicalwise, teaching. When I’m ready to retire into a career, that’s what I’ll be doing.”