It was a cold spring afternoon and we were headed downtown to the theater via Division Street, that razor’s edge between Wicker Park and Ukrainian Village. The boundary used to matter, because on one side were swanky cafes and bistros, and on the other were barber shops and dive bars. But nowadays it hardly matters, as swanky is a constant on both sides and Ukrainian Village has succumbed to the lure of the hip.
When I suggested we go for a drink, my friend Jen said, “We could go to that bar that was lost in time….” which is the grown-up version of the kind of thing I always dreamt my best friend would say to me. It’s right up there with “We should probably solve the riddle of the missing Dalmatian and claim our reward.” So she took me to Queen Mary Tavern, 2125 W. Division, a place she must have passed hundreds of times while walking her dog over the years, but this time it was open for business. The unassuming little tavern had been closed for 40 years and left untouched. Under former proprietress Mary Kafka and her husband, it was a thriving place until his death, when Mary shut it up in 1970 and held on to it—until Matt Eisler and Kevin Heisner talked her into restoring it to its former glory. In the current real estate climate, with condos being built on top of every pebble in the area, that seemed like a sort of impossible fairytale. Had developers and Starbuckmakers really strolled past an unseen bar for decades?
It was exciting opening the door and stepping back in time, although I was surprised not to experience the whoosh of stale beer and pipe smoke that I imagined. Bars in the 1970s were dark affairs, with gleaming wood and shining taps. They did add a few touches though to class up the joint. The paneling and booths and walls were all original but buffed to perfection, and brass fixtures and old chandeliers added to the feeling of being in a ship. “Oh, is this supposed to be THE Queen Mary cruise ship?” I asked the historian and bartender as I sipped my dry cider. “Well, yes, a little bit. We thought it would be nice to add a few features along those lines. But the bar is really named after Mary Kafka herself, who is 93 or so now. She was known as the Queen of Division Street for many years because you could always catch her walking up and down Division. She might even be out there today since the sun has come out.”
The price of our beer and cider was not the price of a beer or cider in 1970 or even in most of modern-day Chicago. It was the price of a beer in a retro-hip bar that proudly states “Opened in November 2015, the time capsule bar explores British maritime drinking traditions, highlighting the finest gin, rum and scotch available.” We sat like two old ladies and marveled over the place while discussing life in our 30-minute “grab a drink” window. The obligatory visit to the powder room was a good idea, since it revealed the coziness of the booths along the way, and the tiny galley kitchen that served mainly oysters on the half shell. The real payoff however was the bar of soap in the loo which was mounted to the wall via a fancy steel rod that went right through it. I couldn’t help wonder if that was a new feature or the way every old bar prevented drunks from dropping the soap?
As we said goodbye to the warm inner glow of the time travel pub, we stood for a moment in front, admiring the regal entryway, complete with a gold crown over the door. I looked around surreptitiously for the original queen Mary—imagining the tiny old lady patrolling her block—but she wasn’t out yet, so we went to the theater feeling much warmer with a drink in our bellies, as every theater-goer prefers.