This was originally published in The DePaulia, 10-20-14
It’s quite common for people to take up a hobby at an early age that they will carry into their professional lives. For Colin Cordell, owner of The Red Lion Pub in Lincoln Park, that hobby was bartending.
“I’ve been making drinks since I was 7,” he said over a bowl of soup. “I grew up during the golden age of using grammar school children for bartenders.”
After having perfected the Old Fashioned in second grade and the Manhattan in sixth, Cordell took up bartending to support himself through college and a burgeoning career in Chicago’s theater scene. He never thought this would lead him to open his own restaurant and bar. But he soon learned that life often leads people in unexpected directions.
“Where you think you’re going in life and where you’re actually going are two different things,” he said. “There’s an old Jewish saying: If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.”
Spend more than five minutes with Cordell, and you will soon find that he is full of these clever proverbs. It seems only fitting for an owner of an English pub that has earned a reputation as a favorite meeting place for artists and intellectuals. It’s earned a lot of reputations actually: As one of Chicago’s “most haunted” bars, one of the best places for classic English cuisine, as a centerpiece of the city’s theater sphere. But whatever crowd or clique one might expect to see at The Red Lion, Cordell doesn’t mind either way.
“Whatever The Red Lion is, it is,” he said. “If people find succor in here, or people can tell me their problems, or just mend themselves, then I’ve done my job.”
Originally opened in 1984, The Red Lion was recently reopened after a lengthy hiatus from business for much-needed building renovations, which, according to Cordell, came at the cost of “three architects, two banks, 30 construction companies, an ex-business partner (and) a couple of legal issues.”
While the pub kept regulars coming with its unique charm, the building had fallen into disrepair, and after a harsh winter froze the pipes solid a few years ago, Cordell relied on the equity the business had accrued to close down and begin renovations. Though it was a lengthy process, Cordell is “ecstatic” about the new space.
“I have level floors,” he said. “I have clean bathrooms. I like to tell people I sent the old ones back to where I got them, in Ankara, Turkey.”
By his own admission, Cordell said The Red Lion is doing fine business-wise, but couldn’t give an exact estimate of sales figures. It stands to reason that the pub has filled a niche of its own thanks to modestly priced food and an aesthetic that mixes the brutish look of a European beer hall with the coziness of a library. The thousand-or-so books and numerous old photos and drawings help establish this, each of them with a story of their own. Cordell’s father was John Cordell, one of the foremen of the famed WWII prison break immortalized in the film “The Great Escape.” Using his skill as an artist, the elder Cordell forged documents that helped the escapees cross borders into friendly territory. Cordell carries on with this helpful ethos, though not in such a life-threatening way.
“I think it’s your duty in life to help out as much as you can,” he said. “Doing the right thing when nobody’s looking. You do it for the rightness of it.” This shows in his keen managerial skills, which he said he learned from “common sense” rather than experience or education. His kind demeanor is most at use when he’s bartending.
“A good bartender is a psychiatric field medic,” he said, another great Cordell proverb. “You get ‘em on the front line when they’re freshly wounded.” It may sound like a joke, but it’s a responsibility he doesn’t take lightly.
“I’ve sent people on to professionals. I’ve had to talk people out of divorce … out of suicide.”
For a historically-themed bar owner with a theater background, Cordell is grounded and genuinely of the moment, two traits that are likely rare for anyone in that industry. It might explain why The Red Lion, even after a six-year hiatus, has simply picked up where it left off, and will likely continue to be the institution it always has been.
So maybe it’s a good thing that Cordell chose this job and not one he originally wanted, to be a pediatrician.
“There’s a zen to (being a doctor),” he mused. “You’re exactly where you need to be at that moment.” By the will of fate, or otherwise luck, it seems Cordell is nonetheless right where he belongs.