Todd Sleeper, owner of the Cove Lounge. | DAVE HOEKSTRA PHOTO
Updated: November 5, 2013 6:24AM
You won’t find a ship of fools drinking at the Cove Lounge.
The self-proclaimed dive bar at 1750 E. 55th St. (near the campus of the University of Chicago) sports a mid-century nautical theme that makes sense for partner and head bartender Todd Sleeper. He spent 25 years as a Chicago Park District lifeguard.
“Nobody will drown in here,” Sleeper chuckled during a recent conversation at the Cove.
The Art Deco “Cocktail Lounge” marquee gives the Cove a Green Mill ambiance. The mahogany bar is solid and traditional, even though on the day I visited, the Cove had received promotional material on tobacco-flavored vodka.
Sleeper has heard stories how University of Chicago student Kurt Vonnegut riffed on the old grand piano that inspired sections of his novel “Player Piano.” President Obama came by the Cove when he was a senator; he is the centerpiece of a colorful mural painted on the east wall last November by neighborhood artist Shawn Bullen. Buddy Guy has stopped in the Cove more than once.
“[Baseball Hall of Famer] Bill Veeck came here because he’d go to the [nearby Promontory] point driving that convertible Thunderbird he used to drive around Hyde Park,” Sleeper said. “This bar has been here at least since the ’50s. Just the other day I was fixing something beneath the bar and I found a doorbell. They obviously used to buzz people in.” (In the 1950s the east side of the Cove was a laundromat and salon.)
Sleeper, 50, attended the University of Chicago lab school. He played basketball with Arne Duncan. He knew the Cove’s previous owner, Beverly resident Dick O’Connell. O’Connell created the nautical theme. Red and green lights denote starboard and port. O’Connell installed light fixtures that looked like helm steering wheels. Sleeper turned one into a clock.
“Dick owned it from the ’70s until 1997,” Sleeper said. “Our corporation then bought it. He had mounted fish on the walls. I got a few fresh water fish. He did more salt water stuff, like a bull dolphin. When Dick passed away his kids took the piano.” They also removed the all-jazz jukebox. The current jukebox is run by the Internet.
That is so un-dive.
The Cove Lounge holds 88 people. It is open from 10 a.m.-2 a.m. Monday through Friday and it opens at 11 a..m. Saturday and Sunday. The day shift draws lots of working-class people. Dive-appropriate prices include $2 Pabst Blue Ribbons (16 oz.) and $2.50 Old Styles.
“We’re probably the most inexpensive bar in Hyde Park,” Sleeper said. “Dick was renowned for giving away popcorn. But the city gave him a ticket because he didn’t have a ‘food vending license’ for $400. So he got rid of the popcorn. I finally donated the popcorn machine to one of the schools over here. I’m not trying to get rich. I’m just trying to pay the bills.”