Yes, we know that Hallowmas is over (as of last Sunday morning), but it is the beginning of The Dead Season. No, that’s not the name of a new TV series on AMC or F/X, despite the numbers of dead and semi-dead running around on the boob tube on those cable networks. The fact is, almost-winter, winter and almost-spring are also the dead season up north for most car cruising and road trips. Which, to Route 66 roadies, means that either you go further south and west on the route or else you become a (temporary) armchair traveler. We don’t mind: we accommodate armchair travelers, too [grin!].
In that spirit, during the Dead Season we bring you stories of other spirit(s) on Route 66, this time over at Cigars and Stripes BBQ Lounge in Berwyn, IL. If you recall, we’ve already clued you in about owner Ronnie Lottz’s tasty smoked hot wings and his tent-and-music extravaganza during the annual Berwyn Route 66 Car Show every September. We’ve even mentioned SweetPea, the resident mummy with its own namesake barbecue sauce; said mummy was out to a day-spa for the fake undead last time we visited Ronnie’s place (we trust that SweetPea’s tattered wraps are all rejuvenated and back in place now).
SweetPea, it seems, has spooky company in the way of a resident ghost or three – or at least there are three possibilities for such spiritual visitations. Ghost stories about the tavern include tales of glasses falling off shelves, bottles falling over or down to the ground, martini shakers flipping in the air by themselves, keys disappearing then reappearing in front of customers, a phone lifting off the hook by itself, a shadowy figure crossing the lounge area or appearing in a doorway, and unexplained noises. And now we have people willing to talk about their experiences in the lounge on YouTube.
Now, as far as we can tell, the last time anyone published an article about the ghosts at Cigars and Stripes was at least half a dozen years ago (the PR Newswire release dated October 16, 2006 was – pardon the expression – a dead giveaway). Before that, Deborah Solomon wrote a longish piece for the Berwyn/Cicero Reporter around 1999, but alas, that publication isn’t online (in fact, we haven’t seen a copy in ages; the paper may be defunct by now. Such is life). Nevertheless, the establishment has had a spate of mediums and paranormal investigators examining the building over the years. Ronnie doesn’t mind – it’s great publicity. Besides, he’s had his own unexplained experiences in the place.
If you’ve never been to Cigars and Stripes before (what? You haven’t??), then you’ve not seen the well-preserved handmade bar counter in the Hammer Hed Lounge, which is just behind the cigar store up front. The bar came from the now long gone Stardust Lounge, which used to be several blocks down Ogden Avenue from Cigars and Stripes (local historian Jon Fey over at the Berwyn Route 66 Museum can tell you more about that). Lottz (alias Ronn Vrhel) had always admired the bar, so when the Stardust closed down, he bought the bar and installed it in his own lounge. One particular spot at the bar soon became a ‘hot spot’ for paranormal activity. A couple who were regular patrons of Cigars and Stripes even met at that spot at the bar and later married.
A matchmaking ghost, you say? Apparently so. The owners of the Stardust, a couple named Rose and Joe, were reportedly very much in love and had been for decades. Joe, the story goes, built the bar for Rose around 1977. Rose, in turn, had a favorite spot at the bar there she liked to sit and talk to customers and friends. This turns out to be the ‘hot spot’ and Rose is a very loving presence, according to one of several mediums who have visited the lounge.
Rose, at least, is benign. Other presences are a bit creepier. Patrons have said they’ve noticed a certain shadow that seems to move across the room almost too fast for anyone to have seen it. Most people who say they’ve seen it mention an outline of a figure, nothing too distinct. But there have also been temperature variations in the room, including some that accompany the sightings.
“People describe it as having no arms or legs – just a shape. They see it go around the corner,” Lottz observes. Ronnie himself has experienced unexplained noises and an incident when he’d lost his keys and complained about that out loud, then went looking for them behind the bar – only to have them drop out of thin air onto the bar counter in front of startled patrons. It’s also thought that at least four people had died in the Prohibition-era building, some of which may be haunting the place. That possibly includes the spirit of a police officer who supposedly died in the bar of a heart attack while patronizing the lounge.
Of course, since the Capone gang at one point moved itself to next-door Cicero and sold illegal beer and liquor throughout the Chicago area, there are the usual rumors that the tavern was a Capone-related enterprise early in its history. Given the times and the neighborhood, the better question is: how could it not have done business with the gang, given that so many speakeasies of the era had to do business with the Torrio-Capone mob? That’s far from saying that it was a Capone hangout, however. No evidence of that. Capone had his own favorite places in Cicero, where brother Ralph (aka ‘Bottles’) ran the beer biz, and in far-south Chicago Heights, where some of his biggest illegal stills operated.
As with other reputedly haunted buildings, the ghosts seemed to come alive when Ronnie and his wife began renovating the place around 1994. During the renovations, his wife heard sounds like there were parties going on downstairs. When he went downstairs to check, Lottz said, there was nothing and nobody there. Typical of its time, the brick building has the lounge in the first-floor storefront plus storage in the basement and an apartment upstairs on the second floor.
Still, the resident ghosts haven’t harmed anyone (well, not unless the alleged ghostly matchmaking ends up in divorce), and they do lend some cachet to the place. Some of the décor and even the names of some of the selections on the craft beer menu reflect the lounge’s reputation. A shield on the wall, for example, sports the logo of Coney Island Craft Lagers, which features an evilly grinning horned demon with a center-parted Rudy Vallee hair style (a true fright in itself; thank heavens that ’do is out of style!). The craft beer menu includes such supernaturally appropriate items as Great Lakes ‘Edmund Fitzgerald’ Porter (named after the doomed ship), Wychwood Hobgoblin, Day of the Dead Blonde Ale, Delirium Tremens, Rogue Brutal IPA (for you beer novices, IPA stands for India Pale Ale), Lucifer Golden Ale, and Capital Mutiny IPA.
Now, doesn’t that make you want to visit? Uh-huh. You can find Ronnie Lottz’s Cigars and Stripes BBQ Lounge at 6715 W. Ogden Ave., between Wesley Avenue and Euclid Avenue in Berwyn. Please note: this is also a late-night kitchen – the BBQ grill is open until 1am on weeknights and Sundays, 2am on Fridays and Saturdays. But get there before they run out of the night’s smoked specials: they go fast.
Ciao for now, road fans!