Old Chicago and I are like two electrical cords, grabbed up in a hasty handful and stuffed into a box together. We wrap around each other, we part, we touch, we miss each other for lengths, we touch again, we part again, and now we might be wrapped around each other again.
My 21st birthday dinner was held at Old Chicago, a night before which I’d never had a whole beer. Since then, I’ve navigated three World Beer Tours. That’s 330 beers, and plenty more have gone undocumented.
In those days, Old Chicago was a rare Twin Ports hideaway in which you could avoid the Michs and Bud Lights and … stabbings, to be honest. My best friend Zach and I would get in at 7:30, dial up a deep dish and chicken tenders, and hog the pool table ’till close. Snakebites and black-and-tans nudged me into a 10-year love affair with Guinness. The pizza, with its perfectly crunchy crust and billowy dough, its wide-reaching pepperonis and cheese that could stretch out the door, was so addicting we’d often get two. We’d awkwardly flirt with the waitresses, and cap it with a gigantic tip.
You’ll give us prizes for trying new beers? Hell yeah, we’ll sign up! Our first tours eased out of the High Life and into Grolsch Swingtops and Spaten Optimators. Well, eased might not be the right word — we went from 0-110 in under eight months. We suffered Zywiecs, winced away Tsingtaos, chugged the cheap ones, and raised Lindemann’s Lambics at the finish line (I finished mine first, by the way).
Our conquest was bittersweet: Zach moved out of state only days after. He came back, but then I moved away, then I came back and he moved away, then I came back and he went to Afghanistan. Friendships live but fade. That’s just life.
The Old Chicago I knew faded with it, also life. I stopped recognizing faces, and started bringing a woman with me. When we stopped in to celebrate our engagement, we were still drenched from the rain I proposed to her in. Dan the Man behind the bar was the first to hear about it, but it would be the last time I saw him back there. Just as Zach came back for good, I moved away for good.
My wife and I finished world tours together in Duluth (my third, her first) a year after betrothing; but these took us three-and-a-half years to complete, and this winter was just setting in.
Old Chicagos were placed inconveniently in the Twinkies, for one. Locations included that Uptown coffin on Hennepin, the one Boneyard was just buried in after less than a year; Eagan, which is way the hell down in Eagan; and Roseville, whose drinkers refuse to unshackle themselves from Grumpy’s.
The Roseville spot was where my wife and I celebrated the first day of her first job after college, but knock-out alternatives were readily accessible from my pad in Washington County. That isn’t a knock on Old Chicago; fact is, NOBODY competes with Smalley’s barbecue and rum drinks and NOBODY competes with a BYOB pizza joint like Ronnally’s.
Then Plymouth happened.
The Parkers Lake vicinity is a veritable dead zone for hop-hunters. It became even more so when Digby’s POOF! disappeared after Christmas. What now?
It didn’t take us long to find it … and wouldn’t you know, there’s an Old Chicago five minutes from home.
It’s a New Old Chicago, though. Gone are the tough-to-pronounce imports and risky-sounding countries of origin. DRINK GLOBAL hath withered. The concept that excited me so as a twenty-something? Deleted.
Who are they now? Old Chicago Pizza and Taproom. They’re assimilating the craft beer frenzy. It’s defensible yet depressing. CRAFTED since 1976? What does that even mean?
They’ve got what I’d call “safe crafts.” It’s a polite way of saying “the same ones you can get anywhere.” They taste great, that’s not the issue — I’ll drink a place dry of Moo Joos and Farm Girl, but Old Chicago is just another place I could do that at. I’m sure there are circumstances behind that, but it doesn’t change the fact.
Otherwise, I couldn’t be happier. The pizza — with its perfectly crunchy crust and billowy dough, its wide-reaching pepperonis and cheese that could stretch out the door — reminded me of the very slices Zach and I fought over 10 years ago. The Sicilian rolls and pretzels are perfect, and the calzones are the closest things to straight cash you can eat, homie. After 9 p.m., the $2 pub pizzas are pure magic. This all bodes well for a place I could drink dry of Moo Joos and Farm Girl.
As it is with all types of modernization, I just have to get used to it and accept life without sketchy-sounding Ukrainian suds. It’ll be three nights in a row when we head there tonight. I can’t believe how quickly the comfort set back in.
Hell, I even over-chatted the bartender Wednesday night to the point of getting my shin-kicked by my wife. Old habits die hard, I guess.