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Historic Chicago dive bar Old Town Ale House reopens despite tavern restrictions — by selling frozen pizza

Patrons enjoy a drink at the Old Town Ale House, 219 W. North Ave., in January 2004. The tavern reopened Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2020, after being closed due to coronavirus restrictions since July 24.

Patrons enjoy a drink at the Old Town Ale House, 219 W. North Ave., in January 2004. The tavern reopened Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2020, after being closed due to coronavirus restrictions since July 24. (Erik Unger / Chicago Tribune)

Old Town Ale House, the historic dive bar that the late film critic Roger Ebert once called “the best bar in the world that I know about,” quietly reopened Wednesday night on the North Side of Chicago.

“GOOD NEWS! THE OLD TOWN ALE HOUSE IS PLANNING ON REOPENING TONIGHT!!!!” wrote artist and self-described mascot-in-residence Bruce Elliott publicly on his personal Facebook page Wednesday morning. Elliott painted the infamous political wall art behind the bar. The series debuted with a naked Sarah Palin holding an assault rifle, progressed to a portrait of Mitt Romney wearing what the artist calls “Magic Mormon Underwear,” as well as a work titled “Cavity Search” featuring convicted former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich.

Open since 1958, the bar has been closed since July 24 at 12:01 a.m., when city COVID-19 orders went into effect shuttering all taverns without outdoor seating. By Chicago licensing rules, taverns sell drinks, but no prepared food. Packaged foods, including chips and other staple dive bar sustenance, did not count. So how could Old Town Ale House open? Thank frozen pizza.

The bar obtained a retail food license from the city, which allowed it to sell the pizza.

“My boss drove down to the City Clerk (office) and got a copy that they said we could post and be legal,” said Tim Polk, bartender and manager of 20 or so years. Tobin Mitchell owns the bar, and is Elliott’s ex-wife. “We just found out we could open at noon,” said Polk.

“It’s by Eastside Cafe,” said Polk. The frozen pizza manufacturer is based in Warrenville. “I know a couple of other folks at other bars were serving them. That’s just something we can pop in the oven, because if we don’t have that, we can’t be open, but if we can serve a frozen pizza then we’re OK. It’s crazy.”

There’s no outdoor seating yet, but they’ve ordered movie theater-style line ropes.

“We might set out a table or two,” said Polk. “Right before we got shut down in July, most of the time it was pretty quiet, but on that last night, there were enough people already that we couldn’t let any more in, because we were already at our capacity.”

Bars and restaurants in the city are still required to restrict capacity to 25% and maintain 6 feet of social distancing.

Pre-pandemic, Old Town Ale House was open until 4 a.m. and 5 a.m. Now the bar plans to open weekdays at 5 p.m., weekends at 1 p.m., but their hours may change, said Polk. Per city rules, all in-house alcohol sales must end at 11 p.m.

Bruce Elliott poses in June 2018 at the Old Town Ale House with a portrait he painted of former Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin. Elliott used to visit the bar five days a week, but has not been going during the pandemic.

Bruce Elliott poses in June 2018 at the Old Town Ale House with a portrait he painted of former Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin. Elliott used to visit the bar five days a week, but has not been going during the pandemic. (Kuni Takahashi, Chicago Tribune)

Mascot and artist Elliott has not yet returned to the bar. “I’m 80 so I’m careful now about how much time I spend in indoor spaces,” he said. “I used to go down to the bar five days week.”

“These restrictions are going to be a death blow to a lot of neighborhood bars,” he added. “Bars don’t make money selling food. Though somebody did call me to say the pizzas are delicious.”

While Elliott may not spend as much time at the bar in person, he’s there in spirit, through his paintings.

“My latest one is Trump in a straight jacket with naked Melania and Ivanka,” he said.

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