Raise A Glass To Toast Prohibition: Speakeasies!

You may be unfamiliar with the phrases “blind pig,” “tarantula juice,” and “coffee varnish.” But 95 years ago, these code words were part of the vocabulary for tipplers in Chicago and across the country.

On January 20, 1920, Prohibition began and shortly thereafter, the cottage industry of speakeasies. Illegal bars were often found hidden within a legitimate business. Patrons usually gained entrance by giving a password to a doorman. The term “speakeasy” was a bartender’s instruction. In order to not draw attention to yourself while buying alcohol, it was wise to “speak easy” and be nonchalant. Nervous behavior was considered bad form. By 1933, the “dry” experiment failed.

But some Chicago speakeasies—or the businesses that held them within—are still around. You can get a legal drink today at any number of former speakeasies all around town. Here are just 10 to celebrate the beginning of Prohibition.

Green Mill Cocktail Lounge

Green Mill Cocktail Lounge

The Green Mill Cocktail Lounge—The 4802 North Broadway bar was a favorite of Al Capone and was rumored to have a secret entrance where he could enter without drawing attention. The iconic green neon sign in front is easy to spot. The interior is ornate with lots of dark wood and decorative flair.

The Berghoff

The Berghoff

The Berghoff—The 17 West Adams Street German eatery was originally a bar, but started selling food during Prohibition to stay afloat. Herman Berghoff did sell drinks during that time—near-beer and Bergo soda pop. The Berghoff still displays the liquor license it regained in 1933 after Prohibition ended.

Durkin's

Durkin’s

Durkin’s—The 810 West Diversey Parkway joint is now primarily home to Penn State alum dude-bros who favor Rolling Rock. But in the Roaring Twenties there was a legitimate soda shop in the front and a speakeasy known as Prohibition Willy’s with an entrance in the rear of the building.

Gold Star Bar

Gold Star Bar

Gold Star Bar—The 1755 West Division Street hangout is dark and gloomy. That’s probably what you expect from a speakeasy, though. The Gold Star still holds a clue as to its seamy past. There’s a key rack mounted on the wall next to the front door. It once held keys to the brothel above the bar.

The Green Door Tavern

The Green Door Tavern

The Green Door Tavern—The 678 North Orleans Street bar still bears the architectural device that gave patrons a visual cue about where to find the speakeasy: a curtained entrance to a brick room can be found at the bottom of a metal staircase. The clientele was largely mobsters. The term “green door,” like “blind pig,” was code for a speakeasy.

The Hangge Uppe

The Hangge Uppe

Hangge Uppe—The 14 West Elm Street hangout inhabits the first floor of an apartment building at the corner of State and Elm. The retro sign and green awning let you know you’ve arrived. A speakeasy inhabited the downstairs bar of the Hangge Uppe during Prohibition. Local legend says it’s haunted by a woman who was murdered there in the 1920s.

Rainbo Club

Rainbo Club

Rainbo Club—The 1150 Damen Avenue establishment screams out “dive bar.” It’s a cash-only joint with requisite pinball machine, photo booth, and Pabst Blue Ribbon. During the day, it looks abandoned, but at night there’s a glowing red neon light in front to beckon thirsty folks. One reminder of the Rainbo Club’s speakeasy past is the blotted out front windows to insulate noise coming from within.

This way to the speakeasy

This way to the speakeasy

Last on our list of former noteworthy speakeasies is the picture above—with three arrows on the floor. This was another Al Capone favorite during Prohibition, and the arrows were a not-so-subtle clue telling patrons where to find the speakeasy. Those arrows still appear on the shiny floor of the lobby of the Essex House Hotel in Miami Beach.

Bill Motchan

Author: Bill Motchan

Bill Motchan is a writer and photographer, and a former resident of the West Loop. He can be reached at bill@ChicagoArchitecture.org.

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