There were bottles of Champagne waiting for Cubs players in the basement of Stanley’s Kitchen & Tap at Lincoln and Armitage avenues when they were five outs away from advancing to the 2003 World Series, Donnie Kruse recalls. The co-owner of Stanley’s said Moises Alou had reserved the basement so that he and his teammates could celebrate the Cubs’ first trip to the World Series since 1945.
As you can probably guess, the Cubs didn’t make it to Stanley’s that night.
“They came a few nights later, though,” said Kruse of the Cubs, who were eliminated from the playoffs the next night and failed to reach that elusive World Series.
Stanley’s (1970 N. Lincoln Ave.), which is celebrating its 20th anniversary, has been a popular hangout for athletes and stars since Kruse, Jack Binyon and Jeff Kalish opened it in 1993. The partners developed many of these relationships at the now-closed Melvin B’s — where Kruse and Binyon were co-owners and Kalish was a general manager. They met several other celebs through the man who seems to know just about everyone: former Blackhawk Chris Chelios.
Chelios introduced actors John Cusack and D.B. Sweeney and singer/rapper Kid Rock, among others, to Stanley’s. It was Kid Rock, however, who helped make Stanley’s famous live-band karaoke on Sundays what it is today.
“It was getting bigger,” said Kruse, who got the idea for live band karaoke from Underground Lounge. “But Kid Rock took it to another level.”
The most famous karaoke performance in Stanley’s makeshift stage area, which looks more like a porch, took place during a private party in 2007 for Cheli’s Children’s Foundation. Kid Rock and Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder, Big & Rich’s John Rich and singer Cisco Adler performed throughout the night in front of a crowd that included Cusack, NBA Hall of Famer Dennis Rodman and the White Sox’s Paul Konerko.
“I realize I’m fortunate,” Kruse said. “A lot of places pay for celebs to come. I’ve never had to pay.”
Since that memorable night, Vedder has returned to Stanley’s to belt out The Band’s “The Weight,” Smashing Pumpkins rocker Billy Corgan has sung Judas Priest’s “Breaking the Law,” and Rodman tried to sing Pearl Jam and James Brown. Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville? He opted for Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline.”
“One night (in 2012), this guy got up and started singing Pearl Jam,” Kruse said. “He must have known Eddie was there. He was so bad, but Eddie snuck up behind him and got on another mic and started singing. The guy was in awe.”
Stanley’s has become so famous for Vedder appearances that fans go there looking for the Evanston native whenever he’s in town.
“When Pearl Jam played Wrigley Field last year, they didn’t get done until 2 a.m. because of the rain,” Kruse said. “We had people waiting outside by the CVS until 8 in the morning.”
Kruse is quick to point out that it’s not just the karaoke and booze that bring in the stars. He said many are drawn in by the comfort food, including Rodman, who orders the chicken fried steak, and his former Bulls teammate Michael Jordan, who used to come in Sundays for brunch.
(Like many other celebs, Jordan signed the wall at Stanley’s, but his signature, just above the entrance doors, has since been covered up by the John Hancocks of nonfamous patrons.)
“Chris Farley used to come a lot,” Kruse said of the late “Saturday Night Live” star. “He’d come out of the dining room and hit himself in the chest and joke, ‘I’m having a heart attack!’ He was kind of quiet, but the second someone said his name he’d turn it on.”
The neighborhood has changed quite a bit since Stanley’s opened. The 20-somethings have been priced out by million-dollar homes. The menu has adapted to the influx of families — the addition of a kids menu, for example — but the vintage look of the place has mostly remained the same. Kruse believes it has become warmer as it gets older. On the other hand, he has thought about turning the downstairs into a separate venue. The owners have held off because it’s still popular for private parties.
Stanley’s has continued to draw big names in recent years, despite the fact that the neighborhood is no longer a trendy nightlife destination like River North and the Gold Coast. It helps that Park West is nearby; which means some artists performing at the Lincoln Park venue, including Pete Yorn, have headed to Stanley’s after their shows. Asked which athletes visit the most, Kruse said Cubs players.
“It used to be Blackhawks players,” said Kruse, who was paid a visit by the Blackhawks and the Stanley Cup in 2010. “But they’re more clubby guys now.”
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