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Chicago, Once Again, Targets Late-Night Tavern Licenses

Since 2002, the number of late-night licenses has dropped by 53 percent

A character leaning on a light pole in front of a bar.
Bruce Elliott’s Old Town Ale House is part of a dying breed of late-night bars.
Barry Brecheisen/Eater Chicago
Ashok Selvam is the editor of Eater Chicago and a native Chicagoan armed with more than two decades of award-winning journalism. Now covering the world of restaurants and food, his nut graphs are super nutty.

It’s college football season, and that means some of the largest crowds on Saturdays in River North and Old Town. Against that backdrop, Chicago’s city council is debating a pair of ordinances that would reduce and restrict bars in those neighborhoods.

One would curb late-night liquor licenses in the 2nd Ward whose neighborhoods contain parts of River North, Old Town, and Gold Coast. These licenses allow bars to stay open until 4 a.m. most nights and until 5 a.m. going into Sunday from Saturday. Existing late-night spots, including restaurants like Gibsons and Maple & Ash, which hold these licenses but operate as restaurants and close early, wouldn’t be impacted by the ordinance. Rush and Division bars wouldn’t be touched.

This move against late-night licenses was telegraphed last year by 2nd Ward Ald. Brian Hopkins. The alderperson cited rising crime and blamed a trio of late-night bars for attracting crime. Bar owners remained tight-lipped about their opinions on the matter as alderpeople could retaliate by pulling their licenses if they make public statements.

As Chicagoans have pointed out, the number of late-night licenses has plummeted over the years. In 2002, Chicago had 234 late-night establishments. That number is down by 53 percent in 2023 at 123 licenses issued. Part of that is cost. The cost of a regular tavern license is $4,400, plus a $40 per year renewal. A late-night license costs $6,000. That’s on top of the regular certifications that need to be up to date.

Many times, when a bar owner wants to sell their business, they’ll also include the license in the sale. Transfers to come up with the same criminal background check, but it makes the application smoother. And that’s especially key since the pandemic when city officials, also subject to staffing woes, take longer to review applications. Owners want to be open as fast as possible to make up the money they spent on application fees. The license may also depend on the whim of alderpersons who are gaining more control over licensing within their wards. A case in point is the approval of street dining areas and patios. Alderpersons won more jurisdiction over those decisions earlier this year.

Meanwhile, Hopkins also introduced a second ordinance that would prevent new bars opening along Wells from Schiller Street to North Avenue. That stretch includes bars like Burton Place, Broken English Taco Pub, Benchmark, 80 Proof, Old Town Pour House, Fireplace Inn, LG’s Bar & Kitchen, the Vig, and Woodie’s Flat.

Block Club Chicago reports that the alderman introduced the ordinances in response to local opposition to new bar owners taking over the vacant Suite Lounge, 1446 N. Wells Street, which didn’t operate with a late-night license. The new owners are calling their bar Caché.

Maple & Ash

8 West Maple Street, , IL 60610 (312) 944-8888 Visit Website

Old Town Pour House

1419 N Wells St, Chicago, IL 60610 (312) 477-2800 Visit Website

Broken English Taco Pub

75 E Lake St, Chicago, IL 60601 (312) 929-3601

Benchmark

1510 North Wells Street, , IL 60610 (312) 649-9640 Visit Website