For a certain type of bargoer, the ideal watering hole is not a swanky downtown cocktail lounge or a crowded nightclub, or even a quiet hotel bar. Instead it’s the neighborhood tavern, a short stumble from one’s front door, filled with familiar faces if one goes more than twice. The appeal of the neighborhood tavern is that it feels like home — and for a certain type of customer, no home is complete without an animal. Like a great bartender, a great bar animal greets patrons, keeps them company, soothes their nerves, and makes them laugh. Unlike a bartender, who works for tips, bar animals bring joy simply by existing, free of charge.
Until recently, the city prohibited live animals (aside from service animals) from entering businesses where food was for sale or on display. This led to some confusion about what actually constituted “food” or “on display,” and bar owners complained that they were getting ticketed for allowing dogs in the presence of cocktail garnishes. In November, the City Council approved a new ordinance that narrowed the ban to “retail food establishments,” meaning that animals are now unequivocally allowed in bars that don’t serve food (and that cocktail garnishes don’t count).
But even before then, certain cats and dogs have maintained a regular presence at several neighborhood bars, greeting patrons, and sometimes their pets, and keeping solo drinkers company. Some have even developed cult followings, like Peg of the Empty Bottle, Mel of Cary’s Lounge, Vida of Jarvis Square Tavern, and Osito of Moreno Liquors and Osito’s Tap. These are their stories.
Goats, elephants, coyotes, and other strange drinking companions
In the early days of Chicago, long before the existence of the recent bar ordinance, bar animals were not limited to domesticated creatures like cats and dogs. The most famous and consequential bar animals in Chicago history were the goats that belonged to William Sianis, the original owner of the Billy Goat Tavern, which, after it moved to Lower Michigan Avenue, became famous as a subterranean hangout for newspaper reporters and the inspiration for the “cheeseburger cheeseburger” sketch on Saturday Night Live.
According to legend, a goat — named either Murphy or Sonovia, depending on which source you choose to believe — happened to wander into Sianis’s original saloon, then located on Madison Street near the old Chicago Stadium, one day in the early 1940s. Goat and barkeep bonded: Sianis even grew a goatee and began to take his small, smelly friend everywhere he went, including, fatefully, Wrigley Field to watch the 1945 World Series. After Sianis paraded the goat past the dugout occupied by the visiting Detroit Tigers, ushers threw the pair out. In revenge, Sianis placed a curse on the Cubs, who went on to lose that series in seven games. In later years, Sianis and later his nephew and successor Sam tried, and failed, to lift the curse with the help of their goats Agnew, Onassis, and Socrates. It didn’t work: The Cubs didn’t appear in another World Series until 2016.
The goats were not the only notable animals who spent time in Chicago bars and restaurants. In 1880, a sea lion escaped from the Lincoln Park Zoo and was apprehended at Madame Raggio’s Restaurant on Clark and Armitage. A dozen years later, a thirsty elephant named Duchess also fled the zoo and made her way to a nearby brewery, stopping to reach into the window of a saloon with her trunk and knock over a barrel of beer. In 2007, a coyote paid a visit to a Quiznos in the Loop to lounge in the drink cooler, but it was quickly removed by Animal Care and Control and taken to an animal sanctuary in suburban Barrington. Larry the Lobster, who weighed a whopping eight pounds and lived in a tank at the now-defunct New England Seafood Company in Lakeview, had a happier fate: No one could bear to eat him, and he served as a mascot until the restaurant closed.
And these were just the best-known. There have been legions of other, less exotic animals, mostly cats and dogs (but also a few turtles), who quietly lived out their lives in the city’s eating and drinking establishments without attracting the attention of the police or animal control. Most bar animals were savvy enough to know which customers to stay away from, either by intuition or because humans kept them close with leashes or crates.
“It used to be Bruce’s place, but now it’s Peg’s place” — Peg of the Empty Bottle
Bruce Finkelman is co-founder and managing partner of the 16” on Center hospitality group, which now owns more than a dozen bars, restaurants, and music venues around the city, including Thalia Hall and Longman & Eagle. He is generally deferred to by his employees, except for one: Peg, the smallest and furriest staff member at the Empty Bottle, the Ukrainian Village bar and music club Finkelman has operated for the past 30 years. “It used to be Bruce’s place,” Finkelman says ruefully, “but now it’s Peg’s place.”
No one would expect a cat to do something so mundane as work. But, as Finkelman points out, “everyone has to pitch in to some extent.” Peg’s primary duty is to keep out four-legged intruders. If time permits and she’s in the mood, she’ll keep solo drinkers at the bar company. But in her third task, she is sometimes remiss: She is supposed to relieve herself in her litter box, and in her litter box only. She has been written up for violating this rule, but she is unrepentant.
“It’s a simple request,” Finkelman tells her. It’s late afternoon, just before the bar opens. Peg is sitting on a barstool and her boss has hunched over so he can look her in the eye. “It’s not that hard.”
The cat stares at him with her greenish-yellow eyes and appears to consider what he’s telling her. Then she swishes her tail dismissively.
Peg, who declines to give her age, although Finkelman estimates that she’s about 4, started at the Empty Bottle in June, when the city began lifting its pandemic restrictions. Previously, she’d been considered the most unadoptable cat at the Animal Care League in Oak Park. She had physical scars from her rough early years on the street. But it didn’t take her very long to settle into her new career. She was given her own private office, a tiny alcove beneath the stairs behind the bar, furnished with a cat bed and food and water bowls, and decorated with a turf rug, posters of Garfield and Felix the Cat, and a T-shirt that says, “Working here sucks.” Initially, Finkelman says, she declined opportunities to be sociable and hid in her room, but as she grew more comfortable, she began spending more time in the barroom with her colleagues.
“Over time, she’s really become a friendly cat,” Finkelman says. “I’m surprised she turned out to be so nice. She made this place a bit brighter during the pandemic.”
Peg is far from the first cat to work at the Empty Bottle. Cats were already living in the building when Finkelman took it over in 1993. They became so identified with the place that after a while, people just began dropping them off. There have been more than 20 so far, all commemorated on a plaque on the back patio; many of them, for reasons no one no longer remembers, were named after characters in To Kill a Mockingbird. The cat with the longest tenure was Radley, who held his post for 16 years and had a taste for music, particularly percussion. Or at least he had a fondness for napping in the bass drums of visiting bands, who would sometimes be nearly at the Wisconsin border before realizing they had inadvertently committed a catnapping. Radley remains at the Bottle in ash form, in a sarcophagus behind the bar.
Peg is still cultivating her personal tastes. She doesn’t drink. “We respect her sobriety,” Finkelman says. “No one has tried to entice her with any alcohol.” Coworkers say she has displayed a fondness for ’90s power ballads. “She’s interested in bingo,” Finkelman says. “There’s solace in a game of chance like that.”
But her prior career as a street cat makes her good at her job. “With her hard life, she has an eye for people who aren’t the nicest folks,” Finkelman says. “All people are welcome here. Anyone who doesn’t live up to that, she takes a shine to not liking someone. She rules the roost from underneath the bar where she watches and paws people.”
“A very well-rounded cat” — Mel of Cary’s Lounge
The very front and back stools at Cary’s Lounge on Devon Avenue in West Ridge aren’t exactly reserved for Mel the cat, the resident rat killer, but all the regulars know that they’re his favorites. They also know that if they happen to sit on one, Mel may demand to share, and he’ll make his wishes known in the most direct way: jumping up onto their laps or snuggling into the seat behind them. If they give in, as a reward, he’ll allow them to pet his soft gray-and-black striped fur.
Mel was not always so hospitable. When he arrived at Cary’s four or five years ago (no one can remember how long ago, exactly), he was a feral cat who had recently been taken in by the Tree House Humane Society in West Ridge and enlisted in the shelter’s cats at work program. He and his two siblings, Paulina and Lunt — Mel’s full name is Melvina, to complete the Chicago street name theme — were hired to help Cary’s owner Pete Valavanis chase away rats that lived in the alley behind the bar. The three cats ran away as soon as they could, but only Mel came back.
Cary’s is next door to a butcher shop, and the rat problem is too large for one cat to handle, but Mel does his best. He typically works at night, after the bar closes, and then at the end of the night’s hunting, he retreats to the back porch to sleep in the small house Valavanis made for him out of a plastic storage container lined with Styrofoam and filled with straw and a bed warmed by a heating pad. Despite this cushy arrangement, Mel takes his work seriously. “One time I caught Mel sitting on the corner of the fence peering out into the parking lot,” Valavanis says. “He was looking out, like he was on patrol. Like a gargoyle. It was pretty cool to see.”
Gradually Mel became accustomed to his new life. He would wander inside when he was hungry, and while he worked his way through a bowl of cat food, Valavanis would sit near him and try to engage him in conversation about politics or the weather. “He’s a very well-rounded cat,” Valavanis says now. “He knows quite a lot.” As Mel’s knowledge increased, he began to feel more at ease with his coworkers and the customers. Now he lets strangers pet him, and he comes when Valavanis calls his name. He’s become so fond of Donna, one of the bartenders (who declined to give her last name), that he regularly brings her “gifts” from the alley, mostly rats but once a pigeon.
Those not receiving gifts of dead animals delight in Mel’s presence: Many respond to their first sight of him with squeals of happiness. Some customers visit Cary’s just to see him and admire Donna’s cell phone video of him daintily dismembering a rat. (Others, it’s true, are not fond of cats, either because of allergies or for other reasons, but Mel is observant enough to know that he should keep his distance.) The regulars chat with him like he’s an old friend and bring him gifts, like catnip joints called Meowijuana. These are the only things that can destroy Mel’s veneer of gentlemanly calm. He’s normally indifferent to toys, but when he gets his paws on a joint, he bats it around and rolls in the catnip like he’s a kitten again, and his friends gather around and share vicariously in his joy.
“He’s amazing,” Valavanis says with absolute conviction. “This guy is just perfect. He’s a great bar cat.”
“We don’t want her to drink too much” — Vida of Jarvis Square Tavern
Vida, a pit bull mix with short tawny fur and a large white patch from her chin to her chest, made her first visit to the Jarvis Square Tavern in the small business district near the Jarvis Red Line stop in Rogers Park at the tender age of eight weeks. Even in dog years, this was well below the legal drinking age, but no one worried that she would be corrupted. Instead, they snapped pictures of her asleep in her basket on top of the bar. That day, she became a regular.
When Vida was a year and a half old, she mastered her first — and, thus far, only — trick: She jumped from the floor to a bar stool. She hasn’t figured out how to jump down again, but she’s still only 3, so she has time. Most days, she sits on a stool beside her humans, Matt and Connie Nolan, tethered by a leash, and licks the condensation off their beer bottles and laps water from her own bowl set on top of the bar. She has suffered through many Bears games. Sometimes the cooks at the R Public House, the gastropub next door, will bring her gifts of bacon.
“People will offer her beer,” says Matt, “but we don’t want her to drink too much.”
The Nolans live on the same block as the Jarvis Square Tavern, and Matt tends bar one day a week. The three of them are there almost every day. Vida, who was named after the Costa Rican expression “pura vida” (which literally means “pure life,” but is also the national philosophy), feels so much at home that she’ll wander behind the bar. She’s spent enough time at the tavern that she’s left her mark. “This place smells so much like dog,” Matt says, “that the dogs know other dogs are in here. People are always like, ‘My dog is pulling to get in there.’”
Vida’s not territorial, though: She’ll greet the dogs who pass by or who sit with their humans on the patio, and she’s befriended a few of the other canine regulars, including Fred, a bulldog. She has special toys at the bar to keep her occupied. But she’s never bored enough to nap; that’s reserved for when she’s back at the Nolan apartment and there are no dogs to sniff or new humans to charm.
Three years of watching Vida at the bar have made Matt philosophical. “Dogs aren’t better than all people,” he says, “but they’re better than a lot. They make life easier. They provide safety and warmth and no judgment.”
He turns to Vida, who is currently leaning across the bar to lick the face of Tony the bartender, one of her dearest friends. “You got a pretty good life, kid,” he says. Vida gives him a quick wag in response, and then looks over to make sure that no one else is waiting to pet her or needs to be welcomed.
“The Dark Knight” — Osito of Moreno’s Liquors and Osito’s Tap
Mike Moreno Jr. and his chihuahua Osito became inseparable companions when Moreno was 13 years old and Osito was a puppy. Osito means “little bear” in Spanish, and the black mask on his face and his stick-up ears did, in fact, give him a bear-like appearance.
When Moreno and Osito graduated college, they went to work in the family business, Moreno’s Liquors in Little Village. Moreno worked the counter while Osito wandered the aisles and greeted customers. And when Moreno decided to open a speakeasy-style bar in the back of the store in 2019, it seemed natural that Osito would be its guiding spirit.
“The store is my house,” he says. “The back is the ‘doghouse.’ So why not name it after the dog?” Osito was also charismatic, cuddly, and photogenic, and he didn’t bark too much: a perfect bar dog. Osito’s Tap featured a portrait of the chihuahua in its logo, and in its initial promo video, Osito leads MMA fighter Jose Shorty Torres through the store aisles to the bar entrance.
Once Osito’s opened, the dog became as much of a draw as the cocktails; eventually he became one of the most famous bar animals in Chicago. Moreno and bartender Denisse Soto even developed a cocktail named after him, a twist on the Old Fashioned called El Oscuro, a shortening of “el caballero oscuro,” or “the dark knight,” since Osito’s pointy ears gave him a slight resemblance to Batman.
“When people have animals, it shows they really care about taking care of something,” Moreno says. “Dogs can’t communicate with you the way humans can, but they show this compassion. When [customers] see a dog with me, that speaks volumes.”
Moreno intended to throw a quinceañera party for Osito at the bar when he turned 15 in late March 2020, but the pandemic put an end to that plan. That fall, Osito was diagnosed with cancer. He was able to attend his sweet 16 party, but he wasn’t the same. His hearing began to go, and when Moreno would carry him on his nightly rounds through the bar, he didn’t respond when patrons said hello or tried to strike up a conversation.
Osito died over the Fourth of July weekend. Later that week, Moreno posted a tribute video on the Osito’s Tap Instagram and invited the public to join in a toast to his life. Much to Moreno’s surprise, Osito’s friends packed the bar.
Moreno has no plans to get another dog anytime soon. In Osito’s absence, he says, “it’s just been a little harder. We were so accustomed to having him here. Customers come in and say, ‘I miss Osito.’”
Which seems entirely natural. Osito and his fellow bar animals, including Peg, Mel, and Vida, are part of what makes a neighborhood tavern feel like home.