LAKEVIEW — The historic Southport Lanes is closing its doors for good after 98 years in the neighborhood.
The bowling alley and billiards hall at 3325 N. Southport Ave. will close permanently Sept. 27, owner Steve Soble said.
Soble said the bar is closing because of the pandemic, which has devastated bars, restaurants and other businesses with months of closure and capacity limits. At Southport Lanes, sales have been down 75 percent from last year and its bowling alley still hasn’t been able to reopen.
“You can’t fight the numbers, and it was pretty obvious we were wasting our time,” Soble said. “But we were 98. We had a good run.”
Southport Lanes has long been part of Chicago lore given its history as a classic tavern that turned into a speakeasy and brothel during Prohibition.
The bar was built by Schlitz Brewery around 1900 and first named The Nook. But in 1922, federal laws banned brewers from owning taverns, so its name was changed to Southport Lanes and four hand-set bowling lanes were added.
The tavern then became a speakeasy with an upstairs brothel sometime during the 1920s, according to Southport Lanes’ website. The building still has a dumbwaiter that was used to bring refreshments to the women and their clients.
When Prohibition ended, a new building was built to the east of the bar room, which Southport Lanes now uses as the billiards room. This building originally housed an illegal gambling facility, but it became a beer hall for rent and a local polling place in the 1950s.
Soble said they didn’t know about Southport Lanes’ off-track betting parlor until they pulled the phone wires sometime after he bought the bar and grill from its former owner Leo Beitz.
“He also told me there was a secret room where, legend has it, Mayor Anton Cermak would hold a weekly poker game,” Soble said.
Since Soble bought the place in 1991, Southport Lanes has also hosted memorable guests like the entire Cubs team for a surprise party for Ryan Dempster in 2004 and actor Al Pacino while he was in town filming the 1992 drama “Glengarry Glen Ross.”
“That was funny because I thought he looked familiar, but when he came to the bar and told me he was Al Pacino, I embarrassingly misheard him and apologized that we don’t serve cappuccinos, but Starbucks up the street does,” Soble said.
But Soble’s fondest memory working at Southport Lanes is the night that the Chicago Cubs won the World Series in 2016. He said he remembered the bar filled with people who were tearing up and celebrating after their win.
“Those were crazy days. I got so excited that I got up and told them ‘I’ve always wanted to do this — round of shots on the bar!’” Soble said.
Southport Lanes was remodeled twice — first in 1991 and again in 2003 — but always preserved the timeless feel of the Chicago institution.
Soble said he’s “put the feelers out” to see anyone might want to purchase Southport Lanes, “but I don’t think anything will happen anytime soon.”
Guests are invited to say goodbye to the establishment by stopping in for food or drink at its bar, sidewalk cafe or limited indoor seating or by ordering carryout. But due to the coronavirus pandemic, bowling and billiards are not available.
“I would love it if people would come in one last time and have a drink with us to celebrate what is a great history behind Southport Lanes,” Soble said.
Southport Lanes is closed Mondays and Tuesdays. People can visit Wednesdays and Thursdays from 4–10 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays from noon to 11 p.m.; and Sundays from noon to 10 p.m. through Sept. 27.
Jake Wittich is a Report for America corps member covering Lakeview, Lincoln Park and LGBTQ communities across the city for Block Club Chicago.
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