BUCKTOWN — Some of Chicago’s most celebrated bars and restaurants have closed this year due to the pandemic, but when Block Club reported the closure of Danny’s Tavern in Bucktown, the devastation was widespread.
From Bucktown to Park Ridge to Seattle, people from all over the country are mourning the loss of Danny’s, which opened in 1986 at 1951 W. Dickens Ave.
While the bar’s owners would not comment on the closure, longtime staffers and regulars said the tavern had been struggling to stay afloat even before the pandemic hit.
After reporting the bar’s closure, Block Club received more than 75 notes from readers who shared their memories of Danny’s.
Many shared their love for the bar’s themed music nights, including Smiths Night, Soul Party, Hot On the Heels and Night Moves. A handful of Chicago DJs reflected on the “free” and “uncensored” artistic community fostered by longtime manager Kevin Stacy.
Readers remember an unnamed “muffin lady” who showed up at the bar in her Jeep to sell “herbal” treats while bands like Tortoise played.
Danny’s is where Cari Franz shared her first kiss with her eventual husband in 2001. It’s where Andrew Furth took his future wife on their first date — and where he proposed to her 10 years later, after the pair had moved to San Francisco.
Bucktown native Megan Hastings used her fake ID at Danny’s in the ’90s while she was in high school. The bar is where Charleston native and DePaul University student Francesca Mathewes celebrated her 21st birthday.
Several people described a night at Danny’s like “going to someone’s apartment.”
One night in the early ’90s, then-college student Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd) took a group of his friends from the Chicago suburbs to Danny’s Tavern.
But Hopkins didn’t tell them they were going to a bar; he told the group they were headed to a house party in Bucktown. Once inside Danny’s, Hopkins said, the friends didn’t question the validity of the claim.
“I led them to believe Danny’s was someone’s house and they had the coolest bar in the world,” he said. “That was a unique element of Danny’s; it felt like you were being hosted at someone’s house, rather than in a bar. … There’s never been one like it, and there never will be again.”
‘A Place Where You Could Be Free’
Danny’s was opened by Danny Cimaglio in 1986 and sold in the ’90s to Michael Noone and Terry Alexander, who went on to start One Off Hospitality, one of the city’s most popular restaurant groups. Noone and Alexander declined to be interviewed for this story.
In the late ’90s, Stacy and Ken Kordich were hired to renovate the interior of the bar, bring in a sound mixer and launch a music program.
Working with a “very limited budget,” Stacy said the duo began with Play, a recurring Monday night show with DJ Bob Davies that was dedicated the electronic dance music scene. Another EDM night, Beau Wanzer’s Hot on the Heels, lasted for 14 years.
Soul- and funk-themed nights followed. Soul Party, popular among Reckless Records employees, exploded overnight when Rolling Stone magazine featured the event, Stacy said. After that story published, Danny’s suddenly had lines out the door.
Many readers told Block Club their memories of partying in the upstairs portion of Danny’s. That piece of the bar closed in 2003 after a stampede inside E2 nightclub killed 21 people.
“A year after that tragedy the fire department showed up … our capacity was 84,” Stacy said.
Limited capacity made lines even longer, he said. Stacy often had to run interference with neighbors, making sure those waiting in line were quiet and respectful.
It was important to Stacy to book diverse talent, including women DJs trying to break into a male-dominated industry. He remembered turning away “puffed-up” club DJs who would critique Danny’s for not hiring DJs who knew how to “match beats.”
“It was really important to us to book people … based on their taste in music and if they were a nice person,” Stacy said. “We just wanted the vibe to be positive and good.”
DJ Marc Davies, known as Black Pegasus, played internationally for years, but said in an email Danny’s “held its own” against European nightclubs.
Whatever Davies felt like playing — jazz fusion, disco, boogie, funk, Latin, Brazilian and African grooves, even the “odd left-field TV commercial songs” — patrons would dance until close, he said.
“Some of the magic of Danny’s was the fact it was never a pretentious bar stressing dress codes nor top-tier social status for entry. You felt at home as soon as you walked in the door,” he said. “One of my fondest memories is a guy who tipped me $75 for getting his wife on the dance floor and showing them both a good time.”
Damon Locks deejayed at Danny’s 2003-2018. He credited Stacy for curating eclectic yet meaningful sets while encouraging spontaneity among performers.
“People who cared about music art and taste would go to Danny’s,” he said. “It was a unique place that I really loved. In the early days, to be honest, every so often you could feel the floor bouncing underneath people. It was a little dangerous, but it was amazing.”
In addition to giving DJs a stage, Danny’s offered access to other art. A monthly poetry series that ran 2001-2015 gave more than 200 poets an audience, Joel Craig said in an email.
“Throughout its programming — and it WAS a programmed space — that’s the kind of tangible culture it incubated,” he said.
While Smiths nights were “legendary,” Hopkins said he never checked the lineup in advance.
“I liked to be surprised,” he said. “You just knew you couldn’t go wrong. Whatever it was, it was gonna be pretty cool. It was pretty hard to distinguish Tuesday night from Saturday night at Danny’s. It was a permanent weekend; it had that vibe.”
Desmond Taylor first hung out at Danny’s in 1994. He moved to Bucktown from his childhood home in Roseland and in 2008 began working at the bar as a doorman and later as a bartender. Taylor also deejayed at Danny’s.
“As a DJ it was a place where you could be free,” he said.
‘It Felt Like A Home’
Danny’s was home for service industry workers, artists, DJs and those who worked in Wicker Park’s records stores — and it was even known as one of the best dive bars in the world, Taylor said.
“The craziest thing was, I’d be working on a Monday, and at 9 p.m. someone would walk in and say, ‘I’m in Chicago for work and a friend told me I had to come here,'” Taylor said. “I can’t tell you how many times on a bar napkin I wrote down, ‘Those restaurants on your list, don’t go, they suck. These are the things you need to do while you’re here.’ The randomness of it … . I’ve made so many friends all around the world.”
Stacy strived to keep everything about Danny’s “simple.” During the two decades he worked as manager he never created social media accounts. He kept the bar cash-only.
When the “cocktail culture” craze swept thought Wicker Park and Bucktown — timed with Alexander’s opening of The Violet Hour, a One Off project — Stacy wanted Danny’s to remain “non-homogenized.” He always stocked the bar with crowd favorites, whether that was Hennessy, Malibu Rum or flavored vodkas.
“One of my biggest problems with the nightlife culture is once somebody does something that everybody can duplicate, then everybody does that,” he said. “People didn’t come to Danny’s to be cocktail connoisseurs. People came to Danny’s to have fun and to dance and enjoys themselves.”
Danny’s is remembered by many as a safe space for queer people. Chances Dances was an LGBTQ-specific DJ night, Stacy said.
Locks, who does not drink, said Danny’s was more than just a bar. From benefit concerts supporting programs that brought art to prisons to birthday parties, DJs and regulars alike could always rely on Stacy to help turn Danny’s into whatever was needed, he said.
“If a bar could feel like a home, it felt like a home,” Locks said. “It was a place that was flexible enough that you could be a part of creating a space and all you had to do was call Kevin. … The best thing that Danny’s could offer was community, and it was a pretty safe space as well, you know? People had your back. Sometimes bars can be unpredictable places. But Danny’s was pretty dependable.”
‘End Of An Era’
Danny’s faced financial troubles before the coronavirus shutdown. In 2015, a dispute between the bar’s landlord and the owners threatened to close the bar. But neighborhood support — including a Change.org petition created by regular Jamie Mack — ultimately helped keep the bar in operation.
Not all neighbors loved living next to Danny’s. As Bucktown gentrified, the quiet block attracted wealthier families, some of whom would regularly call the city on the bar to report noise ordnance violations or other issues, Stacy said.
In a less concrete sense, Danny’s also suffered from the overall shift in bar culture that seemed to coincide with the internet’s growth.
With the rise of dating apps, weeknight sales began to plummet as singles lost interest in spontaneous real-life meet-ups, Locks said. As music streaming apps grew in popularity, the interest in going out to hear live music seemed to wane, too, he said.
“It’s definitely an end of an era,” he said. “As times changed and as people’s habits changed, it was more challenging. You used to go there because you needed to hear good music. … [Now] people just use Spotify. People used to go to places like bars to meet people, have dates. Now there are dating apps. The bar culture has changed a lot.”
Taylor agreed. Even before the pandemic hit, Danny’s had begun to lose the “randomness” that gave the bar its charm, he said.
“Danny’s was so random in the best possible way,” he said. “I think that will be lost. … It was spontaneous. The energy of that building, when you just thought the floor would fall in. People going crazy over the most random song. … That is what’s gonna be missed in this city. … It was just a great f-cking bar.”
Dan Worland went to Danny’s after a shift at Big Star in late March — the last night before the bars and restaurants were shut down due to rising coronavirus cases. Before leaving Danny’s that night, remembered telling everyone, “See you on the other side.”
“We all talked about what we thought would happen and now we know. Turns out that was it,” Worland said. “Is it true to say there’s no place in the world like Danny’s? Probably not, but who cares about those other places?”
Taylor’s final bartending shift at Danny’s was the Friday before the March shutdown.
At the time, he and his coworkers thought they’d be out of work for two weeks. Eight months later, he’s trying to make peace with the bar’s closing.
“I’m sad that I won’t have a place to go to just to hang out and listen to great music,” he said. “That was the most important thing to me, just going there and knowing that every night I went there, there would be some song I’d never heard before. … I have the perspective that this [pandemic] happened to everyone. A lot of people are worse off than I am. I can’t dwell too much on it. Personally I’m OK, I’ll be OK. I know everyone who works there will be OK.”
If you want to support Danny’s staffers, you can donate to their GoFundMe fundraiser here.
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