Visiting historic sites doesn’t have to involve hushed voices, droning docents and solemnity. Among the Chicago area’s vintage destinations, three local spots have long encouraged boisterous conviviality and good times: Village Tavern in Long Grove, York Tavern in Oak Brook and the Green Door Tavern in Chicago. All three of these public houses are more than a century old, stand in their original locations and are great ways to enjoy a bit of history along with good food and drink.
The Village Tavern (135 Old McHenry Road, Long Grove) has the advantage of being in the middle of a charming, historic town. Long Grove was, in fact, the first town in Illinois to be named a historic district. Vintage buildings, fountains, cobblestone walks, gardens, abundant trees, a covered bridge and general charm add to the sense of history. The town’s story dates to the 1840s, when settlers from New England and Germany created a farming community on a minor crossroads.
One of the foundational establishments of every new town was a tavern, and in 1847, The Village Tavern opened for business. Now, 175 years later, this handsome establishment, with its clean white exterior and dark wood interior, is the oldest continuously operational restaurant in Illinois. While some old taverns are rustic, the Village Tavern possesses a touch of elegance, with a highly polished bar and abundant antiques. Photos of early Long Grove in the dining area make it possible to compare the 1800s to the present day—and one easily identifies the vintage buildings that still line the streets of the village.
As is common among old venues, the offerings at The Village Tavern reflect the concept of taverns: casual food and drink, as well as solid classics prepared well (all fresh, made from scratch). There are excellent hamburgers, and the fried fish is hand-breaded using a recipe handed down from an earlier owner. Reflecting more modern tastes, there are quesadillas, Buffalo wings and generously stuffed Tavern Potato Skins. Though meat is abundant, there are also vegetarian and vegan options.
Roughly twenty-three miles south of Long Grove stands York Tavern (3702 York Road, Oak Brook), one of the historic remnants of the once-busy town of Fullersburg. This tavern lays claim to being the oldest continuously operational, privately owned dining and drinking establishment in DuPage County. Fullersburg, which was later absorbed into Oak Brook, was settled in the 1840s by Benjamin Fuller. At one time, there were three taverns here; the current York Tavern is the repurposed 1843 Farmer’s Home, which served as a grocery store that offered drinks before being converted into a full-time dining and drinking establishment. Among the cluster of buildings that remain from the Fullersburg days, the best-known is probably Graue Mill (1852). Somewhere to grind your grain was, along with a tavern and a church, a cornerstone of any early town. The mill offers a remarkable glimpse into what the world was like in the 1800s, from the great mill stones to a range of historic artifacts, mostly related to food. So, tour and learn, and then retire to the nearby tavern to refresh yourself.
The antiquity of the tavern is reflected in the abundance of wood trim, and its popularity is proven by the enthusiastic crowds it draws. The bar is well stocked, and the menu offers both classics and some surprises. Garlic bread with melted mozzarella and grilled calamari make good starters, but there are also abundant fried nibbles (mushrooms, onions, zucchini and cheese sticks). Main courses run from pizza and burgers to pasta, fish, ribs and salads. It’s a historic outing that leaves one happy and well-fed.
The Green Door Tavern
Within Chicago’s city limits, The Green Door Tavern (679 North Orleans Street) is the centenarian. Antiquity is, however, only one of two claims to fame this venue can boast. Built in 1872, right after the Great Chicago Fire, The Green Door Tavern was constructed before the city passed an ordinance outlawing wooden commercial buildings in the central business district. It was the last wood-frame building allowed this close to the Loop. Like the tavern in Oak Brook, this watering hole started life as a grocery store, converted to its present purposes in 1921, one year after the beginning of Prohibition. Many of the bar fixtures installed at that time still exist. In the spacious dining area, abundant wood is all but hidden by historic kitsch (kitsch appropriately being a word that first came into use in the 1920s). The spot survived Prohibition by becoming a speakeasy, acquiring the nickname “green door,” which in the 1920s signified a place to buy illegal hooch. After Prohibition, and with a new owner, the tavern was officially renamed The Green Door to celebrate that past.
There are burgers on the menu (half-pound of beef each), one named the Bootlegger, with whiskey ketchup, a nod to the tavern’s speakeasy past, plus a variety of intriguing sandwiches. Deviled eggs are among items identified on the menu as “famous.” If you want a hefty appetizer to absorb your beverages, Chicago Poutine might be your best choice: French fries and cheese curds drowned in (this is the Chicago part) Italian beef gravy and giardiniera. Crispy brussels sprouts or baked cauliflower might work better for those who don’t want something so heavy.
Though all these places are historic, no need to worry about outhouses or questionable kitchens, as they all have been renovated and, of course, brought up to code. So, treat yourself to a little history, but without the inconveniences of the past. Oh—and one final thing to note about The Green Door Tavern: soon after being built, the building settled, and the slight “lean” that resulted is noticeable; don’t worry if you feel a little off-kilter. It’s not (all) you.