ROGERS PARK — For 50 years, Steve Cunneen was a near-daily presence at his bar, talking with regulars and overseeing an establishment beloved by Rogers Park lifers and college kids alike.
His stewardship turned Cunneen’s Bar, 1424 W. Devon Ave., into a neighborhood institution that served as a gathering place for a diverse clientele. Cunneen was the bar’s life force.
“Just the camaraderie of the place alone,” said Elliott Slutzky, a regular since the mid-’70s. “You just loved Steve. Everyone did. It’s just a wonderful neighborhood bar.”
Cunneen’s is now without its patriarch. Steve Cunneen died Feb. 2 at 86, said his widow, Belinda Colin-Cunneen.
Cunneen died the month before his bar turns 50 years old and as the business is still recovering from the coronavirus pandemic. But the bar is sticking around under the ownership of Colin-Cunneen, with her and the employees trying to keep its community thriving long into the future.
“The bar has been a neighborhood staple for so many years,” Colin-Cunneen said. “I know it means a lot to so many people. I don’t want to close it down. I’m hoping I can keep it going for a couple more generations.”
‘People At Cunneen’s Count Their Tenure In Decades’
Cunneen was a graduate student at University of Illinois Chicago when he decided to buy a Devon Avenue bar called Down the Street and open Cunneen’s Bar in March 1972.
Back then, Devon Avenue was filled with bars, said Bill Savage, a former bartender at Cunneen’s, an author and a literature professor at Northwestern University. Cunneen’s was welcoming of all types, from crusty neighborhood guys to college students.
“Everyone was welcome there,” Savage said. “That was a function of Steve’s values.”
Cunneen infused the humble corner bar with his personality. His immense collection of jazz records was moved to Cunneen’s and played frequently. A woodworker and craftsman, Cunneen built the bar’s tables, the light over its pool table and the stained glass above the front entrance.
Cunneen even made a phone booth and placed it toward the rear of the bar. After pay phones went out of vogue, Cunneen would banish cellphone talkers to the phone booth, Colin-Cunneen said.
Cunneen’s became a neighborhood refuge where people who needed a second home found one and stuck around for decades.
“One thing about the bar business is, there’s a lot of turnover,” said Savage, who tended bar at Cunneen’s for 27 years. “People at Cunneen’s count their tenure in decades. It speaks to a bar owner who created such a generous, welcoming space.”
That was the case for Slutzky, who first went to Cunneen’s in the mid-’70s with neighbors when he was new to Rogers Park.
Slutzky struck up a friendship with Cunneen and even got the bar owner to carry the coffee brand for which he did sales. The two became friends, with Slutzky finding time to visit the bar weekly despite work, family and moving out of Rogers Park. Slutzky and Cunneen played golf together for decades.
“Steve would take time to get to know you,” Slutzky said. “There was always great conversation [at Cunneen’s]. You’d meet people from all walks of life.”
Though the years, Cunneen could be seen sitting in his namesake bar virtually every afternoon. That’s where he’d drink coffee, read the newspaper and chat with regulars.
And, after years as a bachelor, the bar is also where Cunneen found his life partner.
Colin-Cunneen started working at Cunneen’s in the late ’70s, but she left after a few years and moved to Tennessee. After 25 years, she moved back to Chicago and again started hanging out at Cunneen’s, where her friendship with Cunneen was rekindled. The couple wed in 2018.
“He was a creature of habit,” she said. “I went there one night and said, ‘Does Steve Cunneen still own this bar?’ He was there. We ended up talking until 5 a.m. Slowly, the friendship turned into something more.”
Cunneen’s outlived all of the bars on Devon Avenue. Despite that, not much at Cunneen’s has changed over the years.
In 2013, the ceiling of Cunneen’s came crashing down. No one was injured, but the bar had to close for weeks to get repairs.
The following year, the bar’s Old Style sign was replaced by one that says “Cunneen’s” after the then-alderman’s office encouraged the business to update it.
“If you’re a star like me, you can have your name all lit up at night,” Cunneen joked to DNAinfo Chicago in 2014.
When the bar was closed to replace the damaged ceiling, Cunneen still paid his bartenders for their missed shifts, Savage said. Cunneen also gave Savage the antique Old Style sign, which Savage then gave to his brother.
“If there was one word to describe Steve Cunneen, it’s ‘generous,'” Savage said. “He wouldn’t give you the shirt off his back. He’d give you his credit card and tell you to buy some shirts at the store.”
‘I Wouldn’t Want To Give This Up’
Cunneen remained a daily presence at his bar until late last year, when health problems began to surface.
Cunneen was diagnosed with lung cancer in November, Colin-Cunneen said. His condition worsened until his death Feb. 2.
“He was not the kind of man who could linger like that,” Colin-Cunneen said. “It’s been overwhelming. It was too much to process right away.”
A memorial is being planned for Cunneen, who had no children, in late March.
After his death, Colin-Cunneen has been left to operate the bar, though many loyal regulars and former employees have stepped in to help.
Tending bar this week is Janet Pratt, who worked at Cunneen’s for 12 years. That’s where she became friends with Colin-Cunneen and is now back helping her in a pinch.
Pratt said Cunneen was a good boss because he took his employees’ advice and treated them well. Some of the decorations that still stand were installed by Pratt years ago.
“What I liked was, if you were behind the bar, you were in charge,” Pratt said. “Steve was great. Everyone loved him. That’s why they stuck around for years.”
Cunneen’s is forging on — even if it is not out from under the coronavirus pandemic just yet.
Like many neighborhood bars and businesses, Cunneen’s was forced to shut down at the start of the pandemic and again that winter. It survived on a small beer garden that was loaned by a neighboring business, but that deal has gone away since indoor service returned. Regulars and Loyola students helped raise $2,000 for the bar during the shutdown.
“It’s been tough with COVID, and our business is not back to where it used to be,” Colin-Cunneen said.
Colin-Cunneen is working to get the bar back on its feet. She’s hoping the business can get a cafe license for outdoor seating, and she is working to hold more parties and events that would bring in crowds.
Savage is trying to start a campaign to get an honorary “Steve Cunneen” sign at the corner of Devon and Newgard avenues.
At the very least, Cunneen’s still has the patronage of people like Slutzky and the many others who come to the bar for the camaraderie and the conversation. It makes new fans every week with the Loyola students who come by and are charmed by its jovial neighborhood atmosphere.
For as long as it is financially viable, Cunneen’s will remain as a testament to the man who founded such a beloved gathering space.
“Everywhere we went, people knew Steve. They respected him,” Colin-Cunneen said. “I wouldn’t want to give this up. I want to see how it goes.”
Cunneen’s is open daily from 1 p.m. to close.
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