Marty Sorice says it’s the end of an era in Forest Park.
“Bars like Blueberry Hill used to be a meeting place,” he said recently. “We’d get guys from the VFW in here, and guys who’d come in the first day they cashed their pension checks — at 7 a.m.”
Call them dive bars, dumps, joints, “old-man” bars. Sorice’s bars — Blueberry Hill, Shortstop and Circle Inn — are establishments where drinkers can arrive in the early hours and keep drinking till late at night. Ghostly burn-trails of long-banned cigarettes scar the bar veneer. Broken neon signs and ragged sports posters serve as décor. Bathrooms can be horrific.
They’re described on Yelp as “A place you won’t run into the ex,” “Archie Bunker bars,” “someone’s toilet that serves liquor.” They host a unique culture and clientele.
“The phrase ‘dive bar’ is not necessarily pejorative,” Sorice insists. “A lot of bars seek to become dive bars and rough up the décor a bit.”
They used to be plentiful in Forest Park, but they’re going out of style.
Sorice puts some of the blame on demographics.
“The neighborhood is changing,” Sorice said. Forest Park has fewer blue-collar workers, fewer thirsty third-shift employees who stop by for a cheap mason jar of Pabst Blue Ribbon at the crack of dawn.
“The daytime drinkers are gone,” Sorice said, pulling out his smart phone and displaying live video feeds from each of his establishments. At the Shortstop on a Friday evening, two men sit deep in thought at the otherwise empty bar.
“Twenty years ago, it wasn’t like that. Since the 1970s we have 40 percent less business,” he added.
“We have the cheapest liquor prices in town and we pay the same license fees as Doc Ryan’s. It’s harder for smaller places to compete,” Sorice said.
“There are no more third shifts. Brach Candy is gone; we used to have a lot of printing places that ran a third shift,” he said. Sorice said his bar was a watering hole where blue-collar people of all races drank side by side.
“That’s all a thing of the past.”
Sorice is putting his money on the restaurant/bar concept. He and his wife just purchased the former Jim’s Pour Decision, 7522 Madison, (formerly Zambonie’s) and reopened as “Angelo O’Leary’s.”
He also runs a pool and dart league equipment business, and pool tables are a big part of the Angelo O’Leary’s mission. He’s installing a full industrial kitchen.
“We’re going to serve real food here,” Sorice said. “As soon as we get the kitchen finished.”
Sorice is a spokesperson for Keep Forest Park Competitive, a “loose federation” of 17 Forest Park bar-owners who urge the village to permit state-licensed video gambling poker machines in Forest Park.
“If we keep video gambling out of Forest Park it’s a suicide vote,” said Sorice, who owns video poker bars in Fox Lake and said they’re profitable.
Which is not to say that Blueberry Hill doesn’t get busy.
On March 22 during the March Madness University of Illinois basketball game against the University of Colorado, the crowd was shoulder to shoulder.
“This is a longtime tradition,” Sorice said, sipping red wine from a jar-like glass.
A table spread with homemade goodies and dips stood inside the door, where patrons from 8 to 80 relaxed in sweatshirts and Illini gear. Kielbasas sizzled on the grill outside the door, the chef chatting with smokers taking a nicotine break.
“You’re seeing the good part, what a neighborhood bar should be,” Sorice said. “They come here every year and bring food all day.” A cheer went up as Illinois won the game.
But Sorice said, “The single-use bar doesn’t work well in Forest Park anymore.”
He blames mediocre Chicago sports teams, changing smoking laws and the prevalence of big-screen TVs in homes. People are afraid of getting a DUI, he said.
“Now people have huge stereo systems at home and they can smoke in their own house.”
Though it’s dying out locally, the dive bar culture is appreciated by many.
“I like the old-man bar scene,” said Oak Park’s Meg McCart, 35, who’s been a fan of Duffy’s, Shortstop, and the former Horan’s Snug since she was in her 20s.
“These skeevy dive bars are filled with rugged, grumpy people who don’t have time for the rest of us,” McCart said. “I like drinking in caves. I like drinking places where you can’t see daylight and you don’t know what time it is.”
McCart, a writer and social media consultant, said “people-watching the weirdoes” is one of her favorite drinking activities with friends.
She holds a special spot in her heart for Shortstop.
“The seating is awkward, there’s usually somebody doing something offensive and/or weird just outside the front door, and the breathalyzer test in back is wrong 99 percent of the time,” she wrote in a 4-star Yelp Review three years ago. “Mysteriously, I never see this bar when I am driving down the street in the middle of the day. If I do see this bar in the middle of the day, it’s because I am already half in the bag,” she continued.
Yet she’s still fond of the joint. “It’s like that magical door in Harry Potter, the Room of Requirement. I never notice it when I’m sober,” she said last week.
McCart finds pool and dart players annoying and agrees that Forest Park is becoming less of a dive-bar strip.
“When Horan’s went down [replaced by Fatduck], I was expecting a dirty, gritty, dive bar,” she said. “I go in there and they have napkins and clean glasses, and I’m like, where the hell am I?”
But she admitted even she is outgrowing the dive bar scene. “I mostly just go to Healy’s now.”
The Shortstop was once owned by Forest Park Mayor Anthony Calderone’s father.
“He was one of the most interesting bartenders I ever met,” Sorice said. “He had a whistle if people got out of line.”
Mayor Calderone recalled washing glasses at his father’s bar at an oral history event hosted by the Historical Society of Forest Park last May.
“I learned so much listening to those blue-collar people having conversations with other adults about arguments with their wives or trouble with their kids,” Calderone said in May.
But that’s an era gone by.
Sorice said since daytime hardcore drinkers are scarce, he’s found a way to eke out a living from Blueberry Hill by offering Karaoke on the weekends.
“The karaoke crowd is older. They’re women 35-60 and they have the greatest time in the world.” He said he runs a fair and enjoyable karaoke night.
“My deejays know, there’s no bribery. When it’s your turn, you go up.”
Sorice has plans to develop the 5,000-square-foot former Standard Provision meatpacking space that abuts Blueberry Hill. “This space will sell hot dogs and ice cream and next door we’ll morph into a karaoke bar at night.”
Sorice said he’s sad about the changes. “A neighborhood bar like Blueberry Hill is where you go out and interact with other people. Those days are over.”