He'll Drink to That: Historic-Bar Expert Unveils His Hidden Gems"People would ask me what we did over the weekend, and I would have these great stories I wanted to capture before I forgot."
It was 1999 when Sean Parnell's brother bought him a domain name as a birthday gift. That was back before everyone and their mother had a website, a blog and a Twitter handle. Parnell vacillated about what to do with his piece of cyber real estate. "To my mind, it wasn't worth it to have a site if other people were not interested in it."
A year later, having been laid off from a job, Parnell was looking for something productive to do in between interviews, resume-tweaking and bar-hopping. He loved to check out new bars, but found the existing guides didn't give him the inside scoop he wanted. "People would ask me what we did over the weekend, and I would have these great stories I wanted to capture before I forgot," Parnell recalls. Thus, Chicago Bar Project was born.
A decade later, Parnell is the go-to guy for information on the Windy City's watering holes. He owns Innovaxis, a Chicago marketing firm, and is the author of "Historic Bars of Chicago," a project that let him fuse his now-encyclopedic bar knowledge with an affinity for history and architecture. Even though the book is about historic bars, Parnell didn't necessarily exclude ones that have only been around for a few decades.
"The youngest opened in 1994. There are a lot of bars a lot older, but they only made the book if they had a story." Stalwarts include the city's oldest wine bar, Webster's Wine Bar Chicago, and Neo, the oldest dance club.
Longevity isn't the only thing that rates in Parnell's world of Chicago bars. A storied past makes the beer taste better in his book. When guests come to town, he brings them to Andersonville's Simon's Tavern, a former North Side speakeasy where Prohibition-era patrons got checks cashed under the stairs. Bullet-proof glass remains as evidence.
"The Burwood Tap is another speakeasy. It had a candy store in the front," Parnell says. But its place in history is solidified by the fact that "bad, bad Leroy Brown," of Jim Croce song fame, was a regular there. "He was a nice guy, but a bit of a pool shark."
Parnell can also recommend fun places that don't require a beer in your hand. For live music, Jay Pritzker Pavilion at Millennium Park can't be beat. "The speaker placement is exactly how to provide the best quality of sound without blowing out the people in front. And, you can actually see the stage from the lawn," he gushes.
The Hideout also dates back to Prohibition, and Parnell concedes the music club doesn't look like it has been updated since then. "It used to look like the house from 'The Texas Chain Saw Massacre,'" he jokes. "And it is in this industrial area where all the snowplows park. But it is amazing, the music that [the owners] attract."
To safely partake of all this bar- and club-hopping, Parnell books Chicago Trolley for groups, such as birthday parties. "That's the best way to do a pub crawl. They let you bring coolers of beers and you meet friends and experience the real Chicago neighborhoods going down the tree-lined streets."
But for everyday use? Grab a CTA (Chicago Transit Authority) card. "The L is an attraction in and of itself," Parnell says. "The rickety infrastructure, the above-ground stations. It is a lot of fun and you get to see the real neighborhoods of the city."
Check out Sean's Chicago.