Guthries Tavern, the Lakeview neighborhood bar that brought regulars to tears when it closed nearly 15 months ago, is back open under new management and $500,000 in renovations. The bar was packed on opening weekend with patrons who were delighted and grateful that apparently nothing had changed since they last visited in July of 2020.
“I’ve been in this business 20 years,” says co-owner Matt Baldino, “and I’ve never had anyone thank me before.”
Baldino, his brother Mark, and Brett Keeshin purchased Guthries in January from Steve Leith, who had owned and operated the place since it opened in 1986. Leith was looking for a buyer who would pledge to preserve the bar’s atmosphere. Under Leith’s management, Guthrie’s earned a passionate following for its selection of reasonably-priced beers, its brightly-painted ceiling tiles, its relaxed and friendly atmosphere, and, of course, the board games.
The renovations resulted, as Matt Baldino describes it, as “Guthries with an upgrade.” In total, the work cost $500,000. “This isn’t a brag,” Keeshin says. “We were shooting for $200,000.”
It would have been easy to completely gut the interior and start from scratch. But instead, crews went inside the walls to upgrade the plumbing and replaced the floor behind the bar to accommodate the weight of new coolers. And because COVID-19 is now a fact of life for restaurants, ownership installed a modern HVAC system, new windows that out out to the street, and a back patio with heat lamps. When it came time to replace the lighting system, the Baldino brothers took down the ceiling tiles themselves — they didn’t trust anyone else with the job.
And to the bewilderment of the construction crew, they insisted on keeping some of the bar’s most distinctive though outdated features, like the ’80s-era wood paneling on the back wall.
The bar (which already had a steady craft beer selection in its past iteration), now offers 100 beers — most of them from Chicago (plus Guinness and Krombacher; Baldino wanted a European-style Pilsner). The new owners also added about 35 different varieties of scotch and bourbon, while upgrading the wine list. There’s also a new menu of craft cocktails.
The bar opened about three hours after the final inspection by the city, which wasn’t long enough to give the staff a thorough training. There was no marketing blitz because Baldino felt such a thing did not fit with the bar’s low-key image. Block Club Chicago reported that customers began showing up as soon as the doors opened. Baldino says no one complained that the service was a little slower, maybe because the most important component of the old Guthries was back: “Everybody’s grabbing board games and playing,” he says. “If you recreated Guthries and didn’t have board games, it wouldn’t be Guthries.”
The Baldinos already owned a bar, Commonwealth Tavern in North Center, operated by Matt, but they and Keeshin had been Guthries patrons and, like many other Guthries patrons, they had an emotional attachment to the place.
In the end, aside from three new and shiny bathrooms, Guthries looks almost exactly the same as it did before, down to the collection of old globes and beer steins on the ledge above the tables. Most the painted ceiling tiles are back in place, although the owners left room for new artwork. The board games will be cleaned and sanitized every week; since there are at least two copies of almost every game, no one should be inconvenienced.
In the coming months, Guthries will introduce new programming, including a board game league, euchre games, trivia nights, and a holiday game pop-up. As before, the TV will be turned on sparingly and only with the sound off, except for special occasions like playoff games.
The owners spent opening Saturday night at the bar accepting congratulations and thanks from customers who had found their way back. But the best part, they said, was that Leith himself showed up. “He gave me a huge hug,” says Matt Baldino. “He was really happy that he didn’t walk into something that wasn’t Guthries.”
Guthries Tavern, 1300 W. Addison Street, open 3 p.m. to 2 a.m. on weekdays; noon to 3 a.m. on Saturday; noon to 2 a.m. on Sunday.