Chicago’s Legendary Barman: Donnie Kruse
I’ve stepped into his restaurant a million times, but never in the daylight. Funny how places look different in the light of day. Places always look smaller, less celebratory in the light, which always makes me a little sad. Perhaps it’s a result of twenty years of performing at night in venues similar. The light is leaking through the windows and the smell of bourbon barrels makes me think of an Old Western Saloon. It’s as close to the tenements of Cabrini Green as it is to the million dollar penthouses of Lincoln Park. Second City is just a touch closer than Wrigley Field. Basically, its the center of all that is Chicago and Donnie Kruse, is the heart of it.
I knew about Donnie Kruse before I knew Donnie Kruse. Back in the preverbial day, there was always a line in front of his bar, Stanley’s. While I waited to get in, it seemed every few minutes you heard another drunk asshole telling the doorman – “Hey man, I know Donnie”. Years later they jokingly made t-shirts that said – “I Know Donnie”.
Today I come back as a friend, to interview Chicago’s favorite barman. It was just two years ago that Donnie was on life support and we thought we lost him, but a complete organ failure didn’t have a chance in stopping Donnie.
Stanley’s Kitchen & Tap has been a staple of the Chicago nightlife for 23 years. It’s a haven of celebrities on any given night. Not your typical celebrity fare but an edgier, cooler celebrity that visits Donnie. Michael Jordan, Chris Chelios, John Cusack, Eddie Vedder, Kid Rock, Mike Starr and an onslaught of Cubs, Sox and Blackhawks seem like silent partners with their frequent visits. There are some legendary after hour hangs. Some I’ve seen myself and some I’ve been told about and sworn to secrecy. One on night Donnie had to kick out an Academy Award Winner.
Donnie Kruse was an Irish kid who grew up on the South Side of Chicago. His grandfather was a liquor salesman and his father in catering, so it seemed his future in the bar business was predestined. Donnie opened his first bar while attending the notorious party school Southern Illinois University. The bar was in his dorm room. After brief corporate stints at Playboy and ABC, Donnie finally invested in a bar with his friend Jack Binion. The bar was called Melvin B’s located in what is now referred to as The Viagra Triangle in Chicago.
Talking to Kruse is to hear a real student of the business. A year and a half after Melvin’s opened, the current location of Stanley’s became available. The space had always struggled, and most recently was owned by former Chicago Bear quarterback Jim McMahon. Donnie didn’t hesitate in taking over the lease.
Artie Moher, Donnie’s college roommate has been behind the bar since the day it opened in 1993. Artie has been sober since the day The Bears won the Super Bowl in 1985. The adorable Lady Ernastine is in the kitchen peeling potatoes and greeting patrons with her infectious smile and a “Hello Darlin”. The burger meat is delivered every single day.
“The burgers today were alive yesterday”, Donnie always says. “It took us over six months to develop what we thought was the perfect burger. Then to have my burgers sold at Wrigley Field at Cubs game …..well, that was a dream come true.”
Oprah Winfrey’s personal chef Art Smith once said, “I love Stanley’s, you watch the game out front with everyone going crazy and you step back in and it’s like being in my grandmothers 1950’s southern kitchen!”.
I finally find Donnie doing some paperwork in the dining room, I take a seat at his fourtop beneath a sign that says – Willie Nelson For President. I wait for Donnie to finish up so we can start our stroll down memory lane.
TRM: Your celebrity clientele is pretty amazing. How did that all come about?
DK: We never cater to it. Chris Chelios was very instrumental in bringing athletes and musicians here. There are pros and cons to it. There are some places that are in the paper all the time, we never do that. My staff knows it. Michael Jordan would come in every Sunday for brunch and no one would ever bother him.
TRM: Have you had any celebs that were divas?
DK: Not really, just Jay Cutler. He wanted his own staff person to guard his table. He wouldn’t order directly to the waitress , somebody ordered for him.
TRM: Wow, not all that surprising
DK: Yeah., his wife was just great to everybody though.
TRM: What makes you good at what you do?
DK: I like people, I’m genuinely interested in people and that’s what I tell my staff. My staff is really great. I always ask them what they ultimately want to do with their life. If they say, TV and Radio, then I’ll say do you know who you just waited on? She’s a producer at NBC or whatever. You never know who you are going to wait on or who might come in. Take an interest, is what I tell them and that’s what makes Stanley’s special.
TRM: Tell me about your Sunday Night Live Karaoke night, it’s the thing to do in Chicago on Sunday.
DK: Sunday night is a big industry night and one Sunday Chris Chelios brought Kid Rock in and we were sitting down, having some drinks and Bobby (Kid Rock) got up and did like ten songs, and it was amazing. If that was now days with Twitter it would have been insane.
TRM: Eddie Vedder has also done karaoke too hasnt he?
DK: Yep….Big and Rich as well.
Donnie gets a call and apologizes that he must take it. As he walks away for some privacy I gaze at the lonely microphone in the corner remembering one of those nights Kid Rock came into Stanley’s. Donnie had long been trying to get Bobby to cover one of my songs. One song in particular was Unemployed. The chorus I wrote is complimentary to his style – “Hallelujah, I’m overjoyed, I’m drunk again, and I’m Unemployed”. Donnie thought that song would make a great track for Bobby. I had just flown in from Italy the night before and had a show in Chicago when Donnie called and said, “You gotta come down and meet Bobby, talk about that song, I played it for him, he likes it, get down here”.
Sounded like good advice to me so down to Stanley’s I went. Kid Rock got up and did a few numbers on karaoke and then we all went downstairs to the party room for some privacy. I remember AJ Pierzynski was there and I muttered to myself, “ugh” as he passed by. Bobby did like my song and told me if he ever covered the song, it would probably allow me to buy a new house. I was stunned. I was living in a shitty apartment at the time and a new house was a pipe dream at best. We hung out and talked over beers and shots and I kept thinking that maybe, just maybe, my ship had come in.
[Donnie returns from his phone call and we pickup our conversation]
TRM: You have always had a close connection with the Blackhawks and even have had the Stanley Cup in your bar. Tell us about that.
DK: When Stanley’s first opened, nobody watched hockey. I grew up playing hockey and have always loved hockey. Fast forward to me on the Blackhawk’s bus after they win The Cup. I called here and said set up buckets of chicken and buckets of beer. We arrived and within an hour the streets wer closed and helicopters flying overhead. It was crazy! We’ve had 7 Stanley Cups here. Pittsburgh Penguins, Wendall Young. Cheli brought it both times for Detroit Red Wings and then 3 Blackhawks. We were the 3rd stop on the first Stanley Cup. We actually have a Stanley’s Blackhawks Bar at O’Hare Airport. Its a long way from playing hockey as a kid growing up.
TRM: There was another party that didn’t quite happen. The 2003 Chicago Cubs who were five outs away from the World Series, when it all fell apart.
DK: Moises Alou lived tive doors down the street and he was in here all the time. He called and reserved the downstairs room for the celebration after Game 6. We were all set up for the party … and well everybody knows what happened then.
A day staffer interrupts and asks Donnie to come with him downstairs to survey where they are renovating the party room and Donnie politely excuses himself again. As I watched the dust particles dance in the daylight and shimmer off the disco ball, I smile and remember Game 6 like it was yesterday. I was sitting two tables in front of where I am now, in front of the television. It was 2006, Cubbies vs. Marlins, five outs away from the World Series. Donnie had told me Moises Alou had booked the room downstairs and he had all kinds of champagne, booze and food for a post victory celebration. The Cubs would be going to their first World Series since 1945 and Donnie wanted to be prepared. I’d met Moises here a few times and remember shaking his hand with a grin. Moises admittedly urinated on his hands to make them rougher to better grip the bat. So here we are, five outs away, when a routine foul ball changed the course of Cubs history. Ironically Alou was involved in this play when he went over to catch the ball which would bring us to four outs away. An unsuspecting Cubs fan named Steve Bartman (along with others), reached for it, impeding Alou from catching the foul ball. The rest, as they say is history and so was Donnie’s party.
[Donnie returns to our table]
TRM: We almost lost you a couple years back. can we talk about that? What happened?
DK: I don’t know, I developed this eating habit where I couldn’t stop eating, I gained all this weight. I wasn’t sleeping, I wasn’t exercising and my body kind of shut down. I was in a wedding for a friend of mine, but I wasn’t really there. I wasn’t making any sense when I would talk. For a few weeks everyone was asking what was wrong with me. Then they found me unconscious and brought me to the hospital and I was in a coma. I had heart and liver failure and found I had a brain mass but it was benign. They put me on steroids and knock on this wooden table, my scans have been clean. I love drinking, but I haven’t been drunk since it happened. I’ll have a beer or glass of wine but I just don’t do more than that.
You think you’ve got a gazillion friends but you find out how important family and true friends are when something like that happens. I’m closer to my family than I ever was. It was kind of like, if I don’t have tickets or a girl for people, then they couldn’t be bothered.
TRM: I remember Magic Johnson saying that when Larry Bird called him after he acquired HIV – You find out who your real friends are. Thanks for sharing Donnie.
You’ve had a legendary life, great lasting success, failure, tragedy, near death experience, notoriety, infamy, indulgence, abstinence , sacrifice & celebrity. You’ve literally had nine lives. What do the next nine have in store for Donnie Kruse?
DK: What I think and dream about is Ray Kroc didn’t meet the McDonald brothers until he was 58. Colonel Sanders was broke at 63. He sold his chicken supplies door to door and met a guy who picked him up and soon thereafter became Kentucky Fried Chicken. I have a lot of ideas, I’ve been ahead of the curve before.
I’ll tell you this, thirty years ago when Melvin’s had the Cedar Hotel right there. The first boutique hotel was in New York, Morgans by Ian Shrager and Steve Rubell (Studio54 Owners). I said say – We should do that here. Everyone said I was out of my mind and now it’s gonna open as a Viceroy Boutique Hotel.
TRM: Have you ever been star struck Donnie?
DK: Yes, Keith Richards at a show in Central Park. A friend asked if I wanted to meet him and I said, “Noooooo!”. Then while we were backstage, Keith walked by with a bottle of Stoli Orange and a cigarette and said hello to me and and I was totally speechless, so I guess that’s starstruck?
TRM: Yes I suppose that is starstruck alright. Donnie it’s great to see you my old friend. Thank you for your time and sharing some of your life with me.
Donnie and I said goodbye and hugged each other like a couple of soldiers that have been through a hell of a battle. I walked out of the empty bar and into the bright unseasonably warm Chicago afternoon. For the first time in my life I really felt like – I Know Donnie. I feel even better when I reflect about a song I wrote a couple years ago and included a passage about Stanley’s.
“I don’t know why they call it Stanley’s, Its in Chicago and Donnie Is the Man.
When I was struggling and I had no money, Donnie Kruse lended me his hand.
Ten years later, I’m still working, Providing for my daughter and wife
Cuz sometimes, you need the darkness, In order to ever see the light”
Thank You For Reading!