If you’ve had your fill of the lights and crowds of Chicago’s bigger tourist attractions (the Sears Tower, Navy Pier, the Magnificent Mile, etc.), or want to explore beyond the Loop and lakefront, this timeless corner tavern in the historic, tree-lined neighborhood of Old Town should pique your curiosity, as well as your appetite. And for good reason. Originally kept “wet” by a speakeasy during Prohibition, it later served as one of Frank Sinatra’s habitual Chicago haunts, and appeared in two major motion pictures (1999’s Return to Me and 2008’s The Dark Knight), as well as HBO and The Cooking Channel. GQ Magazine, The London Times, Fortune Magazine, Chicago Magazine, Gourmet Magazine, The New York Times, The Chicago Tribune, The Chicago Sun-Times, and many international travel guides have all highlighted it as a “must-visit” destination. Yet despite all this attention, the tavern remains one of the city’s hidden gems – inside, it feels like just another old local establishment that happens to carry a lot of history – and the city’s best ribs. It remains as wonderfully homey and functional as I imagine it did in 1932, when it first opened its doors.
From the street, the brick three flat with the restaurant on the ground floor at 1655 N. Sedgewick looked like something out of Goodfellas. The first things I noticed were the red tile façade and green-striped awnings. Fire escape ladders led up the unfinished pink bricks around the corner to tiny apartment windows just above the old-school neon sign, which blazed in red script: “The Twin Anchors.” Pulling open the heavy wooden door and peering inside, I was initially unimpressed; the low ceiling and dim lighting seemed underwhelming, especially after movies had made the interior seem larger and brighter. But as my eyes adjusted, I noticed the little details that make The Twin Anchors a living time capsule of a bygone era: the red-and-white checkered floor, the series of tiny, low tables to the left, and the bar (donated from the Schlitz Brewing Company) along the right wall. A thin, wooden arch divided the bar from the back half of the restaurant, with a beloved old sign, “Positively No Dancing!” that had endured throughout the years.
Not that much floor space existed anyway. At the bar, a happy mix of locals, families, and savvy tourists guffawed and clapped each other on the back while overhead TV screens flashed a baseball game. The far rear wall displayed a nautical steering wheel and twin anchors that provide the restaurant’s namesake, against a baby blue background. Tiny white Christmas lights adorned the wood-paneled walls, and autographed posters and photos of celebrity patrons lined the circumference of the room. In one nook, a scrapbook-style poster of the cast and crew from Return to Me hung along with a poster from 2008’s The Dark Knight.
The menu offered traditional fare – chicken, burgers, steak and fish entrees. But the restaurant’s hottest item was, and is, the legendary rack of barbecue ribs, as indicated by Sinatra’s famous order immortalized on every menu: “Ribs, and keep ‘em coming!” The ribs truly lived up to their reputation here, falling off the bone and served with a choice of three special sauces: mild, zesty barbecue, or the special “Prohibition Sauce” (watch out for the scorching ghost pepper) for an extra $0.50.
Over the years, my family and I have visited the Twin Anchors again and again on special occasions, or just whenever we’ve wanted to feel like tourists in our own city. If you also want to get in on one of the city’s best-kept secret eateries, make your way to Old Town and pay the Twin Anchors a visit. It’s as close as you’ll get to feeling like you’re in the Chicago of 50 years ago. Just don’t try to dance in there.