The nightlife scene in the middle of Chicago’s Gold Coast is synonymous with meat markets and late-night hook-ups. Rush & Division, as it’s called, hosts a plethora of bars open until 4am, and patrons wander from spot to spot until they find Mrs. Right or Mr. Right Now. It’s popular with tourists, suburbanites, and locals who want to keep the party going all night long, and they owe it all to Butch McGuire.
McGuire was an enterprising young man who knew how to throw a party, so in 1961 he borrowed some money from his mother and opened a bar across the street from the then-4 year old The Lodge. He took what had been a former speakeasy and strip club and turned it into the first singles bar. At the time airlines would have “stewardesses” stay at the nearby Sandburg Village and he would send drivers to pick up the ladies and bring them to his bar. Women were made to feel welcome; no man was allowed to sit at the bar if a lady didn’t have a seat. Butch McGuire’s soon gained a reputation as the place to go if you were single and looking for love.
Over the last 50 years thousands have found it – literally! The number of marriages that resulted from Butch McGuire’s ranges from 5,000 to 10,000 depending on who you ask, but everyone agrees that it seems to foster relationships in an uncanny way. John Malloy handles the bar’s social media efforts and his parents actually met while working at Butch McGuire’s!
What is it about the place that it fosters so many love connections and keeps it going strong for 50 years? First and foremost it has to be the people. Butch was at the helm until he passed away just five years ago, and now his son Bobby runs the bar. His wife Mary Jo still comes in and sits in her booth, and there are pictures of the family in the glass case near the kitchen.
Speaking of the kitchen, Helen’s been manning it for over 30 years. I heard she can also drink any of those boys at the bar under the table and keeping up with Helen is a rite of passage for Butch employees. Even some of the bartenders have been around for decades, which is practically unheard of in that industry.
Then there’s the food. There are fun dishes like mini corn dogs, their infamous chili, and Helen’s Tuna Sandwich. While many of the favorite recipes are Helen’s, Jenny, a former employee, went off to culinary school and came back to the bar with her own recipes to contribute. A favorite: Car Bomb French Toast. This incredible concoction is Guinness- and Baileys-battered french toast served with Jameson’s syrup.
That’s obviously not a family-friendly dish, and you wouldn’t normally think of a bar on Division Street as a place to take the kids, but Butch welcomes children before 5:30pm, especially during brunch. They’ve got a kids’ menu and coloring books and you can guarantee that some of those parents actually met a few feet from where the kids are eating their chicken fingers.
Another part of Butch McGuire’s charm is their complete lack of restraint with Christmas decorations. They have 40,000 lights strung from the ceiling. Walls are covered in wrapping paper. Nutcrackers line the ledge around the back bar and mobiles hang from the ceiling. Also hanging from the ceiling are their double-decker train tracks that entertain kids, adults, and drunk people for hours on end. They start putting up the decorations in October just to be ready for the holiday season. It’s like walking into the Christkindl Market squeezed into a storefront. They leave them up until around mid-January, then turn around and get all festooned for St. Patrick’s Day.
Although some people might consider it just a bar, Butch McGuire’s is a piece of Chicago history and is filled with tales of Windy City lore. It’s a step into the past, a party in the present, and if you get lucky enough to meet that special someone, could even be a glimpse into your future.