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Jake's Pub Celebrates Its 70th Birthday
by Robert V. Rorick (special thanks to The Tap - Chicago's Bar Journal)
(Be sure to check out some pictures from the 70th anniversary party in the wall of fame section.)

“Legal liquor flows today” was the headline of the Chicago Daily News on December 5, 1933. With Prohibition repealed, people could drink legally once again, and the Al Capones and Joe Kennedys of the world would have to find another vice to exploit.

Fast-forward nearly 70 years to April 1, 2003: the 70th anniversary party for Jake’s Pub (2932 N. Clark). An observant reader will notice an obvious disparity between the date of repeal and the bar’s anniversary. (The original liquor license, one of the first 10 post-prohibition licenses in the city, was lost. April 1 was decided upon as the bar’s birthday so the owners could host a springtime party). Yet, like all legends, the facts are often secondary to the myths.

Jake’s is just such a legend. Jake’s has remained in the same location, under the same name, through 70 years and four generations of owners. Such is the life of planets and stars compared to the longevity of the city’s bars. And in Jake’s universe, as the beer and booze flow, so do the accumulated stories of 70 years of business.

Jake Rosenbloom originally opened a penny candy store in the space. (The back bar is a remnant of this period; it served as the candy store’s original shelving.) A back room provided living quarters for Rosenbloom’s family. Once prohibition ended, he sold packaged liquor out of the store. Then, a few years later when his sons took over the business, the store was turned into a bar. His sons even started a bartending school after the Second World War to teach returning GI’s a new trade.

Once established, the bar thrived on the corner of Clark and Oakdale. In the early ‘70s, an employee of the bar, Bob Toothman, bought it from the Rosenbloom brothers. For 15 years he lived on a cot in the back room, opening the bar at 7 a.m. and closing at 2 a.m. Perhaps it was the hours, or maybe his back couldn’t take another year on a cot, but Toothman decided to sell his bar. However he didn’t want to sell it to just anyone. It had to be someone who knew and appreciated and loved Jake’s. It had to be someone who wouldn’t damage the bar’s integrity. That person turned out to be Scott Johnson, the current owner.

Johnson, like Toothman before him, was a regular at the bar. On a fateful golf outing, Toothman propositioned Johnson and soon the bar was his. For Johnson it wasn’t necessarily a dream come true, but it was one big event in a turbulent time in his life. He quit his regular job, got divorced and bought the bar—all in one month’s time.

Under Johnson’s ownership, Jake’s began to take on a new personality. He described what Jake’s used to be as “an old-man bar, with no stereo, no television, bright as a 7-11 and quiet as a church.” He decided to update the bar to better fit into the changing neighborhood with music and t.v.s and a more vibrant crowd. For him it is about loving the business, meeting people and a conscious lifestyle choice. And what he has created is a warm neighborhood bar.

My experience at Jake’s on a balmy April Fools Day began around 9 p.m. The party was already in full swing. Revelers filled the long, narrow bar and were noticeably polite to each other. One could hear more and more “excuse me’s” and “pardons” as the crowd swelled.

I found a lone barstool hidden among the throng and immediately became absorbed in the setting. Having identified myself to the bartender, I was immediately introduced to Sean Joyce, the daytime manager, who happened to be standing next to me. Drinking double-fisted, he began telling stories—stories about how he started working there, and about drinking with his regulars outside of Jake’s. He introduced a few of the regulars, many of whom have moved out of the neighborhood but maintain their loyalty to the bar and still consider Jake’s their neighborhood joint.

Shar, who has worked there for 15 years, met her husband in the bar one evening as he sat crying in his beer. This reflects the general philosophy of the staff: they try to introduce new people to the regulars, bringing strangers together. Penetrating eyeballs persecuting strangers who walk into the bar are not allowed. No cliques.

Then there is the institution known as Hank Arnold. He has been a patron of Jake’s since it was a candy store, and he holds court almost every evening at 8 p.m. On Saturdays, he arrives with his 35 mm camera, takes pictures, develops them and displays them on the back bar. Hank, like Jake’s, has endured.

On my way out at the end of the night, I overheard someone say, “When you got Jake’s, why anything else?”