The Story of the Red Lion English Pub
The Red Lion pub may look like any ordinary Chicago pub, but all that changes on the inside. The books immediately catch the eye, a whole library’s worth neatly stacked behind the bar and on shelves with the Union Jack as a backdrop. There are hundreds of pictures. From posters and sketches to vintage photographs of men in military uniforms. Behind the bar is an authentic German helmet from World War 1.
The Red Lion has a strange atmosphere for a bar, like something between a restaurant and a museum. Upon crossing the threshold, it is apparent that the Red Lion is unique out of the hundreds of bars in Lincoln Park. Not only because it is rumored to be haunted but also thanks to its proprietor, Colin Cordwell.
Cordwell is the son of an American cultural anthropologist and English architect, with his parents met in West Africa. Cordwell joked about being a product of English colonialism.
He has run the Red Lion for 46 years, taking a 6-year break to help four others open their bars before returning to make the Red Lion what it is today.
“Well, I didn’t know what I was going to do with it when I rebuilt the place back in 2012,” Cordwell said. “I didn’t know what I was going to do with the interior, and it hit me one day. I said, you know what, I’m gonna turn this into a library museum. It’s gonna be an homage to World War One and World War Two.”
Cordwell’s love for World War history started with his grandfather, who served in World War I , and his father, an RAF pilot and POW in World War II.
For Cordwell, the Red Lion is more than a family business or place to fuel his ego. For him, it is a place to honor and tell the stories of the men and women who served in the world wars.
“You know, this isn’t taught a lot in school anymore,” Cordwell said. “So, I figured it was my credo for this place. If you didn’t learn in school, you’re going to learn it here. And I teach more history behind a bar than I ever did in a classroom.”
Despite his love for history, Cordwell did not look back positively upon the history of the building’s upkeep. According to him, when his father put down the money to purchase what was once Dirty Dan’s Saloon. Cordwell mentioned that the space was like something out of a “Charles Dickens novel” and that it was “cold, damp, moldy, rat-infested, and generally unpleasant.”
“It was a rundown old building,” Cordwell said. “My dad put the money up for it. My brother-in-law was my business partner at the time. So, we basically ran the operations from day one. My dad didn’t know anything about the bar business. He just put the money up, and he sat here and told stories.”
Cordwell spoke fondly of his father, joking about his womanizing behavior and false teeth. But he keeps pieces of him close. In the bar’s back corner, Cordwell keeps an entire wall of pictures his father drew when he was a German prisoner. At the front, in a lounge called The Great War Room, an image of his grandfather and great-uncles hangs proudly.
A Not-so-Easy Business
Running a bar is not easy, however, and while Cordwell loves his career and business, there are many hurdles to overcome.
“Some guy threw up in my urinal last week, and I had to clean it up, and they threw up all over my toilet, and I had to clean that up,” Cordwell said. “I told someone after I had done this and cleaned everything up. I said 85% of these places go under in the first year and a half because 85% of people don’t want to do what I do for a living.”
During the interview, Cordwell often paused to readjust things in the dining room or help a patron at the bar alongside his bartender, Jake. Additionally, Cordwell took the time to greet his patrons with a warm smile, often striking up conversations and referring to customers by name.
Cordwell still emphasized the hard work and headaches of being a business proprietor, even saying he does not want his kids to follow in his footsteps, preferring for them to pursue their own goals.
“If she [hostess] doesn’t show up, who is going to wait tables? Me,” Cordwell said. “If he [Jake] doesn’t show up, who’s gonna bartend? Me. If a chef doesn’t show up, who’s gonna do it? Me. I had to do the dishes before. You gotta be prepared to do everything. You might have a great weekend, and then a compressor blows out, and then you spend $4,000 on a compressor. So, anybody who thinks you get rich in this business is crazy.”
Cordwell and his staff are not the only people who bring charm and originality to the Red Lion. According to Cordwell, many in Lincoln Park know of the Red Lion’s spiritual residents. Two patrons even asked him about it when he took a break during the interview.
While some staff don’t give much credence to ghosts, Cordwell believes that something resides at his pub and has encountered it more than once.
“I’ll have chairs pull themselves out from time to time, and my dog saw something one time go down the stairs,” Cordwell said. “He just followed it, watching it go down the stairs, and he fixated on the bottom of the stairs and growled at whatever was there. I couldn’t see it, but he could. They say dogs and little children can see them.”
When asked about the ghost’s identity, he revealed her name to be Sharon Paul, a 20-year-old woman who had an intellectual disability and who died in the loft of the original building.
“Back in 1991, it was a Saturday, and a woman came in with her husband, and she wanted to see the upstairs,” Cordwell said. “So, I took her upstairs, and she started crying. I said what’s the matter, and she goes, ‘Well, this is like a trip down memory lane for me. My aunt lived up here for years, and my cousin died up here.’ I pointed to the spot, and I said she died over there, didn’t she? She goes, ‘Yeah, how’d you know?’ I said that’s where the cold spot develops.”
According to Cordwell, Sharon is more playful than sinister, describing her as entertaining herself by playing tricks on people. He even told of when she played a trick on him by rearranging furniture in the loft when he wasn’t looking.
“She got me one time upstairs,” Cordwell said. “I went upstairs to get something, and then I came back downstairs. About 10 minutes later, I went upstairs again. I left the lights out, and I thought everything was fine. She had moved the furniture, and I fell over a chair. I’m sure she thought that was dynamically humorous.”
Cordwell looks at the haunting pragmatically, citing the law of conservation as an explanation. He explained his thoughts on how energy can leave behind a residue and that certain environmental conditions can make them replay.
“I think it’s residual energy,” Cordwell said. “Energy can’t be destroyed. It’s one or two or three things: either somebody has died, and they don’t know they’re dead, and time in that sort of vibration frequency spiritual space is different from time in our space. Or it’s like when I put my thumb on this mug, and I take it off, my thumb’s not there, but the print is still there.”
Despite the jarring notion of a ghost residing in the Red Lion, Cordwell compared Sharon’s presence to adding as much to the bar as a single ornament adds to a Christmas tree. Sharon is a part of the Red Lion and its story.
Cordwell also shared how, in the ’90s, Sharon’s mother passed away, and they held a service for her in the loft of the original building where Sharon herself passed away.
“This was a while ago, back in the 90s,” Cordwell said. “We held a service upstairs for her and thought maybe her mother would take her with her, but something’s still here. I’m not sure if it’s Sharon or not.”
A Different Kind of Therapist
Cordwell also explains how despite being a barman, or publican as they are called in England, making drinks for customers is secondary. Cordwell’s primary service is an ear for people’s troubles and thoughts.
“That’s basically what I do,” Cordwell said. “I’m an unlicensed therapist, but it’s like Lionel Logan and The King’s Speech. I don’t have any letters behind my name, but plenty of success.”
While Cordwell acknowledges that negotiating people’s emotions is difficult, especially if they have too much to drink, knowing he can do good for someone makes the difficulties worth it. But it is still hard having to cut someone off, especially if he knows they are having a hard time.
“Believe me, if I can help somebody, that’s worth the price of everything,” Cordwell said. “You know, God invented bartenders, so everyone will have someone to talk to. You’ll have to develop a lot of patience in every sense of the word. My grandmother says, ‘Think whatever you want. Just don’t think too loudly.’”
Cordwell often references how, as he has gotten older and continued his work as a publican, he has taken on a parental role. He has helped guide many of his patrons in the right direction, especially with romantic advice, just like how people helped guide him in the business.
Cordwell takes a keen interest in his younger patrons, teaching them how to enjoy their liquor without hurting themselves. He doesn’t carry products such as Budweiser, Malort, or Fireball. Because of this, he often refers to the Red Lion as “one of the last adult bars left in Lincoln Park.”
“I do a lot of remedial parenting in this business,” Cordwell said. “I try to keep youth from killing itself. So, you don’t want to drink this stuff. You gotta give your liver time to filter it through, so have a drink every half hour to 45 minutes and chase it with water. You have to be kind to your liver. I know you feel like you’re invincible now, and you’re gonna live forever. But believe me. You can do a lot of damage to yourself in your youth. I’m amazed I got as far as I did.”
When the interview was over and the doors of the Red Lion closed, there was a feeling of wanting to return. Like a good movie, the atmosphere, history, patrons, and staff leave one begging for more. Not to mention, it is a change of pace from the often hectic sports bar scene. But if nothing else, one thing is sure. The Red Lion stands out, adding to the charm and character of Lincoln Park and Chicago. Whether they’re ghost hunters, anglophiles, historians, or couples on their first date, the Red Lion is somewhere that should be on every Chicagoan’s bucket list.
Header by Rafa Villamar