The new owner of the Woodlawn Tap has a University of Chicago bachelor’s degree, practices law, a long time residency in Hyde Park, encyclopedic knowledge of the business and the support of employees and regulars alike.
Matt Martell, 49, has worked at the 74-year-old bar popularly known as Jimmy’s since the 1990s.
“It felt like it was tradesmen, local neighborhood people, students and university faculty and hospital workers, for the most part. It looked almost identical,” Martell said in an interview last week, three months after taking over.
Nevertheless, the whole interior was replaced by the prior owners, Bill and Jim Callahan, to bring the bar up to code after founder Jimmy Wilson died in 1999 in order to get the new liquor license reissued — work Martell helped with.
But the tin roof is original, as is a swinging door between two middle rooms and some lattices above it. The bar’s early opening hours, 10:30 am every day, is a leftover from a time when third-shift workers were still commonplace — it used to open at 8 am Employees call the middle area the Liquor Room because it used to be a Chicago-style packaged goods store.The still-there cigarette machine has been empty since 2008, when its supplier abandoned it.
What is called the West Room, because it is furthest west (the one with a stage by the window) used to be called the University Room, because customers used to have to show U. of C. identification to enter.
Wilson himself trained Martell in that room that afternoon in June 1994 when business was slow, instructing him that anything was OK to drink while he was working except the top-shelf stuff. That’s still Woodlawn Tap policy, though Martell said no one really drinks on the job. (“We’ve consistently had an excellent staff here,” he said)
Martell is a native of Somerset, Wisconsin, near Minneapolis. Despite putting cheese curds on the menu and going to law school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he is not some dyed-in-the-wool cheesehead about to announce a special on old fashioned brandy gold put cannibal sandwiches on the menu at Christmastime. Neither does he identify with the Badger State’s legendary strong ties to small town and neighborhood taverns.
“My parents were not bar people at all,” he said. “I can’t say that as a child or youth that I spend any time in bars.” he said.
However, his job in high school was the one-and-only line cook at a restaurant on Main Street — good preparation, as it turns out, for work in the Woodlawn Tap’s similarly small kitchen.
Martell came to the U. of C. in 1991, majoring in philosophy and intending to go to law school. When he graduated, after already having begun work at the Woodlawn Tap, he decided to take a year off and work at Jimmy’s six nights a week, managing on Saturday nights and booking that evening’s bands at a time when the bar was known for live music . Sunday afternoons were for blues bands, and Sunday nights were jazz nights.
Both of those traditions waned in recent years, jazz particularly after the COVID-19 pandemic hit and all the bars closed or else were capacity-limited. Martell would like to revive them. “It’s a question of putting the band back together: who’s still around, who wants to do it and in what frequency,” he said.
After finishing law school, Martell returned to Illinois and clerked for a suburban law firm in 1999. He was admitted to the Illinois bar in 2000 and soon established his own solo practice, which continues to this day. The Woodlawn Tap was closed over those two calendar years, as Wilson’s liquor license died with him, the Callahans had to get a new one and the bar itself was 89 feet from the parking lot of St Thomas the Apostle Catholic Church, 5472 S. Kimbark Ave., and a municipal ordinance had banned bars from opening within 100 feet of churches.
The city initially ruled against them. The Woodlawn Tap appealed, and, after the Rev. Jack Farry, himself a regular, tested that his parishioners and school parents found Jimmy’s a convenient place both to get lunch and to reflect on other matters of the spirit, the bar won.
After the bar reopened in May 2000, Martell worked on Friday nights, 9 pm to 2 am, — he didn’t have much time for a social life as a new attorney, so tending bar fulfilled that niche for several years. Alas, working late on Fridays began to wear on him after a decade. But by 2014, he had shifted to real estate transaction work outside of the courtroom, which allowed him to take a Woodlawn Tap shift during workday hours on Tuesdays. And that continued until he and Bill Callahan began talking about passing along ownership, before the COVID-19 pandemic started.
The two events, the change in ownership and the worst public health crisis in a century, were not related. Asked about taking ownership of a hospitality business during an incredibly difficult time for that industry, Martell noted the institutional role Jimmy’s has for Hyde Parkers and U. of C. alumni. Students bring their parents there. Couples have met there and gotten married.
“Keeping it going in its current form was very important for Jim and Bill, and for Jimmy, and coming in as basically the third owner of the bar, it’s very important to me as well, to keep the bar running as a place where the entire community is welcome,” he said. “First off, it’s been a dream of mine to own this place for at least the last 20 years. When given the opportunity, there was no chance I was not going to do it.”
Asked if he sees the Woodlawn Tap as an investment to make money or a passion project, Martell said both and that they go hand-in-hand. He wants the community to know that he is trying to bring live music back as well as improv and spoken word. He described the business model as “a comfortable, not flashy, very warm, inviting place where the prices are good, there’s lots of places for people to spread out and read a book, study, come have a very cheap, lunch, dinner, a couple beers with your buddies, come watch the Bulls on TV.”
“A community place,” he said. A dive “in the best sense of the word.”
In an exception to the much-reported difficulties that American businesses have had hiring and retaining employees, Martell said the Woodlawn Tap has largely retained the workers it employed pre-pandemic, which he ascribed to good morale, camaraderie and a low-key working environment . Twelve people work there now, though their hours are structured differently than they were before the pandemic, as customers are not coming into the bar the way they did before March 2020.
Inflation is affecting the business, however. Martell said operating costs have gone up across the board, from having people come in to empty out the grease trap to the beer company’s fuel service charge. The Woodlawn Tap has raised its food prices a bit for the first time since at least 2013 — profit margins are much higher on alcohol than food, anyway.
The business’s hours are still the same. It is still cash-only, a policy Martell doesn’t see changing anytime soon.
“One of the reasons that people feel so comfortable coming through here is because it is the place where you can show up in a T-shirt and ripped up jeans and feel like you fit in. You can walk in here in a shirt and tie and feel like you fit in,” he said. “It’s just that type of place and always has been. And that’s the goal, to keep it exactly like that for as long as we can.”
In the past three decades, Martell said Hyde Park has become less about the U. of C. and more about being a residential neighborhood as well as a destination. When he would ask why people moved to the neighborhood in the 1990s, they would inevitably tell him they got a job at the university or its hospital. Now, he said, people tell him they came here because the neighborhood is beautiful, or that is reasonably affordable compared with places like Lincoln Park.
Even during his law school years, Martell was coming back to Hyde Park over the summers to clerk. He always intended to come back.
“I feel like a Hyde Parker at this point, thankfully,” he said. “It takes awhile to get your chops.”