Southport Lanes, the historic bar, bowling alley, and billiards hall that’s operated under various names for nearly a century, will permanently close on Sunday, September 27, according to a rep. Chicagoans can bid farewell to the beloved venue over the next week and a half with beer and bar food that’s available for dine in and carryout. Sadly, the last pins have already been set: the games have been shut down due to the pandemic.
It all comes down to math, owner Steve Soble tells Eater Chicago. Soble — who also owns District Brew Yards — reopened the bar in July but couldn’t allow customers to play and eat at the same time. He ultimately found himself running a sidewalk cafe with a limited bar food menu. The numbers just didn’t add up. “Southport Lanes is really about the community getting together, and when you take away these communal spaces and you’re not able to do that safely, it’s really hard to make it work,” he says.
Built around 1900 by Schlitz Brewery, the bar was originally called the Nook, according to its website. It was one of several tied houses owned by the brewery in Chicago, along with the building that now houses popular music venue Schuba’s. The bar finally became Southport Lanes in 1922 with the addition of its four eponymous bowling lanes, which many believe are the oldest in Chicago. Southport was also one of the last bowling alleys in the U.S. to employ human pinsetters rather than using a machine.
Many Chicago bars became speakeasies after Prohibition was instituted in 1920, including Southport Lanes. Ownership writes that it even housed a brothel upstairs at the time, and alleges that Mayor Anton Cermak at one point held a weekly poker game — another illegal activity — in a secret room.
Soble acknowledges that the closure is painful, and wants customers to remember the good times. His favorite memories include getting to realize a long-held dream — buying a round of shots for every customer when the Cubs won the World Series — and a particular evening when he unwittingly served Al Pacino, who showed up to bowl while filming Glengarry Glen Ross. “We have been around since 1902 and I’ve owned it since 1991, so I would say we’ve had a really good run,” Soble says. “It’s sad, but I hope people come in and enjoy it one last time to celebrate what we had.”
The closure comes as yet another blow for residents of the Southport Corridor and surrounding area, who have seen many notable bars shutter permanently during the pandemic, including Guthries Tavern, Fahlstrom’s Fresh Fish Market, and Redmond’s Ale House. Bars, restaurants, and cafes that involve on-site games are facing significant hurdles due to the coronavirus, which can spread through the airborne particles as players cheer or engage with one another. Bowling is available at the Fulton Market location of dining-and-games chain Punch Bowl Social, which reopened Monday, but the company isn’t allowing karaoke for the time being.
Before Soble moved his beer operation from Lincoln Park to West Town, he also ran similar business called Lucky Strike (which eventually became Seven Ten Lounge before closing).