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At Stanley's Tavern, 89-year-old Owner Has Last Call at 8 P.M. on Weekdays

By Casey Cora | November 13, 2013 8:04am

BACK OF THE YARDS — Tavern owner Wanda Kurek doesn't drink.

"I get headaches. I learned that when I was about 21. You spend the whole next day giving it back," said the fiery 89-year-old owner of Stanley's, a nondescript tavern at 4258 S. Ashland Ave. in Back of the Yards.

Kurek doesn't care much for drunks either, so she closes her bar around 8 p.m. each weekday and keeps it closed on the weekends.

"I don't like drunken women or wiseguys," she said.

Look around the place and you'll notice the 2013 version of Stanley's isn't unlike the 1935 original.

There are bowls of potato chips on the long dark bar, a few taps of domestic beer, a vintage jukebox and a menu of hamburgers and sandwiches, plus specials cooked each day by Kurek, with help from a Polish immigrant working in the tavern's rear kitchen.

Usually, there are two homemade soups — available for $1 in a cup or $1.50 for a bowl — both served with a basket of bread and butter.

This week's $6 specials have included turkey breast and mashed potatoes, bratwurst, smoked pork butt and the "Polish plate" with Polish sausage and homemade pierogi.

"When I'm lazy, I'll make the easiest stuff. Baked beans and hot dogs," she said.

It's literally a home-cooked meal — Kurek lives upstairs from the bar, then trudges down each morning to do the prep work, like shredding cabbage or peeling potatoes. Most days, you'll find her perched on a bar stool sipping a Coke from a short glass and cracking wise, or walking around to visit the bar's guests.

The story of the tavern stretches back to 1924, when Kurek's father Stanley, a worker at the nearby Wilson & Co. meatpacking company, quit his job to open a bar with a friend in the 4100 block of South Ashland Avenue.

By 1935, he opened his own spot a few blocks away, knocking down a barber shop and restaurant to build the tavern and an apartment above it.

Kurek grew up above — and inside — the bar. She took it over after the 1983 death of her brother Ted, who oversaw it after Stanley's death in 1957.

She's owned it ever since, with assistance from nieces and nephews and bartender Guy Vanek, a former trucking company owner prone to smoke breaks and busting the chops of just about every customer who walks through the door. 

"This is a shot-and-a-beer joint," Vanek said. "I'll mix the cranberry sauce with the vodka for the women who come in here on Thursdays and Fridays but that's about as far as that goes."

He knows most of the customers by name, because Stanley's is the type of place where you've either been coming for decades or it's been recommended to you by someone in the know.

Although Walt Kurek, Wanda's nephew, said they'll soon start a Twitter account listing daily specials, the tavern has virtually no online presence, and locals say you can't find the phone number in any phone book.

The establishment has zero Yelp reviews, and the bar's sparse Facebook fan page is filled with a handful of confused diners reviewing Stanley's Kitchen and Tap, the Lincoln Park Southern food spot.

And that suits the Kurek family just fine.

"Literally, generations of Chicagoans have been in here. And it was the same as it is now," said Walt Kurek, 58. "The business is an extension of the family. Anything you eat, the silverware you use, there's a level of cleanliness here because that's how we live."

The patrons are a different breed now, considerably less rowdy than the dwellers of Whiskey Row, a stretch of taverns that doubled as a booze-soaked retreat for the slaughterhouse workers at the nearby Union Stockyards.

Today, the area is known as the Stockyards Industrial Corridor, which is more like a corporate park, meaning there is more office space, but overall fewer blue collars to occupy the stools at Stanley's.

You'll still find city workers there. Cops, too. And maybe a lonely truck driver or a few old-timers sipping glasses of draft beer and reading the paper.

On a recent visit, a uniformed Chicago cop hunched over the bar and dunked bread into his chicken noodle soup. A dozen or so bar stools away, retired cop Carl Bator expounded on the hard-drinking history of the neighborhood.

"My grandfather worked in the Stockyards, and I remember him coming home from here, and you knew he had a drink or two. These guys didn't just drink beer. They drank whiskey. They were hard-core," he said.

Just this week, Stanley's had its biggest crowd in years, a server said. A group of Bridgeport retirees had a Veterans Day lunch there, while a group from Pittsburgh happened to drop in, looking for a bite to eat.

It's a wonder the outsiders made it in at all.

Throughout the years, seven exterior beer signs have been knocked off the building, courtesy of trucks turning west onto 43rd Street from busy Ashland Avenue. 

Wanda's not about to make it eight.

For now, she has no plans to quit the bar business. She jokes that she wants to run away with a rich man, or maybe a younger guy who can keep up with her.

Both seem unlikely, and it's just as well.

Because patrons say the comfort food, hard-bitten hospitality and old-school atmosphere offered at the bar represent a slice of Chicago that's quickly being forgotten, and that the inside of Stanley's is a far different place than what's happening outside of it.

Editor's note: A previous version of this story incorrectly reported Stanley's closing time. The bar closes at 8 p.m.