Agreeing to write a book about Chicago’s neighborhoods might seem daunting. Where does one even begin? To tell the truth, though, the prospect of getting to cover communities that are off the beaten path of tourism was an exciting prospect. While you can’t have a guidebook on the Windy City without including Wrigleyville, The Loop, Wicker Park and the Magnificent Mile, I knew for certain that I wanted to write about diverse locales, from Andersonville to Pullman and everywhere in between for “Perfect Day Chicago: Grab-and-Go Itineraries for Everyone.“
One of the neighborhoods I was excited to learn more about when researching my book is Back of the Yards. My introduction to the area began in 2019, when I was working on a story for TripSavvy on the Back of the Yards Coffeehouse—I was interested in their mission to help the neighborhood thrive through their social impact fund.
Anyone who has read “The Devil in the White City” by Erik Larson or “The Jungle” by Upton Sinclair knows that Chicago was once the “Hog Butcher for the World,” thanks to the Union Stock Yards and meatpacking plants nestled next to the railroads. Irish, German, Czech and Polish immigrants flooded into the city in search of jobs at the stockyards, which opened on Christmas day in 1865 and operated until 1971.
Two remnants of this storied past can still be seen. The first is the limestone Union Stock Yard Gate, a National Historic Landmark, designed by White City architects Burnham and Root, and located on Exchange Avenue at Peoria Street. The second, a true hidden gem, is Stanley’s on Ashland, a tavern and restaurant located along what was once called Whiskey Row, the boozy corridor where men would go for a drink after a long, hard day working in the stockyards.
Stanley Kurek, a Polish immigrant, opened Stanley’s in 1924. The tavern moved to its current location on Ashland in 1935. Stanley’s was a place for stockyard workers to come in, cash their paycheck, and get a meal. Always a family business, Stanley’s son Ted ran the bar after Stanley’s death, until his own death in 1983. The torch was passed to Ted’s sister, Wanda, who ran and lived above the tavern until 2019—she was ninety-five-years-old when she passed. Quick witted and oft-described as a character, Wanda was well-known as the “Face of Stanley’s.”
Before including Stanley’s in “Perfect Day Chicago,” I popped in to see the place for myself. There isn’t a website, just a social media page with ninety followers and a menu of the daily hot and house-made specials: sloppy Joes with baked beans and potatoes on one day, meatloaf and corn on another. This is a word-of-mouth type of place; when you know, you know.
Arriving at Stanley’s, husband in tow, I learn the place is closed. I step back to make sure I’m in the right spot as there are no prominent signs (exterior signs kept getting knocked off by passing trucks), and no windows available to peek in. Just as I snap a photo, a man approaches and asks me what I’m doing there. I stumble over my words, suddenly feeling like I was caught red-handed. I blurt out that I had sent an email and didn’t get a response and that I’m a writer working on a book. “Ah, yes, I’m Walt; wanna come inside and see it?” he asks. “Absolutely,” I beam.
The eatery is tidy and smells of floor cleaner. I’m struck right away by the beauty of the large mahogany bar with a Union inlay, lined with red-cushioned diner stools. A handful of metal tables dot the middle. There’s a copy of a black-and-white photograph from 1906 of Whiskey Row’s block of saloons on Ashland Avenue leaning against the wall.
Walt, the late Wanda’s nephew, shows me the antique O’Keefe & Merritt stove in the back kitchen that looks like it requires some tricky steps to get it to operate safely. The meals here are homemade, there’s no doubt about it. Walt tells me that the food served is the same food his family eats. Stanley’s wouldn’t serve something that they wouldn’t eat themselves.
When my husband notices that the vintage Rock-Ola jukebox has a bunch of polka tunes, he asks if he can play one to hear the sound. “Apple Taffy Waltz,” “Dark Eyes Waltz,” “Happy Anniversary Waltz,” “Firefly Polka,” “Love Me Forever Polka,” “Dusty Shoes Polka”—you get the idea. Walt says that his family bought it brand-new in 1953 and it still sounds great. He’s not wrong.
Replace the polka music with country tunes, the South Side urban locale with Big Sky farmland, and this neighborhood tavern isn’t too unlike the old cowboy saloons I grew up going to with my dad during my childhood in Montana. The charm of this inimitable place, and my gratitude for being allowed to experience it in this way, overwhelms me. I have no other recourse than to grab my husband in an embrace and dance and hop to the music down the length of the tavern, around the intimate tables, and back again, giggling at the wholesomeness and wonder of it all.
Stanley’s is at 4258 South Ashland. Visit for lunch on weekdays between 11am-2pm.
Wendy Altschuler is a Chicagoan, seasoned travel and adventure writer who has written stories for major print and web publications on destinations across the globe. She’s an Americorps, DePaul University, and Windy City Rollers alum; she’s visited nearly all fifty states and many of our nation’s national parks; and she’s a mother of three teenage boys. As a professional travel and adventure writer, her career has brought her all over the world. She traveled solo to Hong Kong; tried surfing in Bali, El Salvador and Costa Rica; swam with whale sharks in Mexico, nurse sharks in Belize, and manta rays in Hawaii; met women tea pickers in Sri Lanka and Maasai warriors in Kenya; hiked the Grand Canyon rim to rim; tried salmon-flavored vodka in Istanbul and fermented shark in Iceland; rode a camel through part of the Sahara Desert to spend the night in a remote camp in Morocco; smoked a shisha with flavored tobacco in the Maldives and Dubai; rappelled in an erosion crater in Israel; and brought her boys to Japan and Peru. And, because Wendy has made a home in the Chicago area, writing a book on the city she loves was a no brainer. Her book, “Perfect Day Chicago: Grab-and-Go” (published on March 15) highlights twenty-nine diverse neighborhoods. This guidebook will be great for locals who rarely venture out of The Loop as well as travelers visiting the city for the first time. Follow for more on Instagram: @wendyaltschuler.