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Mulgrew’s is a fixture on ‘Sin Street’



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Updated: December 12, 2012 6:05AM

EAST DUBUQUE, Ill. — It’s not an exaggeration to suggest that Mulgrew’s is one of the state’s most historic bar/restaurants.

Mulgrew’s, which sits under the shadow of the Julien-Dubuque Bridge over the Mississippi River, is in Illinois. It is across the river from Iowa. It is three miles south of Wisconsin.

It is really somewhere else.

It’s the last twinkle of a neon boulevard of honky-tonks and strip clubs along Sinsinawa Avenue, known by the locals as “Sin Street.” During its peak in the 1940s and ’50s, Sin Street featured more than 30 establishments over three blocks. Mulgrew’s at 240-44 Sinsinawa Ave. (815-747-3845) is still known for its foot-long chili dogs that absorbed the excesses of late-night revelers.

The chili dogs are sinsational.

I tried to hold a juicy Mulgrew’s chili dog ($4.35) in my hand and quickly learned why the order comes with a fork. It was like trying to eat gumbo in a bun.

Just imagine if you’ve sipped a few cold ones on Sin Street.

The chili dog comes with shredded American cheese, onions and a secret hot mustard that’s made with stale beer. That’s all owner Dalene “Toots” Temperley would tell me, and that’s all I think I wanted to know.

“My great-uncle Eddie went to Chicago in the 1950s and got some ideas on chili,” Toots said on a recent Friday evening at Mulgrew’s. “The woman cooking here at the time played around with the recipe. The hot dog is steamed. A lot of people think there’s Tabasco sauce, but there is no Tabasco. But there are a lot of spices.”

The bar holds about 90 people. The warm feeling is accented by dark paneling, red booths and ceramic floors. The jukebox plays everything from Johnny Cash to Southern rock. The under-the-bridge location attracts hardscrabble river workers, college students from Dubuque and bored tourists who tire of listening to Jim Post songs while in Galena, Ill., 20 miles east of East Dubuque.

As recently as the late 1980s, there were strip clubs like Diamond Jim’s Isabella Queen and Schnee’s Lounge in East Dubuque. At one PG-level club, the walls were covered with black-and-white photographs of strippers who had names like Good & Plenty, Violet Rose and other names out of a Tom Waits song.

A shuttered strip club called Looney Tunes is now overrun with stray cats.

I think White Persian worked that room.

“People came from everywhere,” said Toots, 54, who as a child got her nickname from her father. “Iowa had a 2 o’clock [liquor] license.”

Mulgrew’s has always had a 3:30 a.m. license. In 2005, the East Dubuque City Council tried to switch the license to 2 a.m. to make the town more “family friendly.” That effort failed.

“And there’s three more bars on the street that are 3:30,” she said. “They are saying no more 3:30s for a while. We did get a new mayor who used to own a bar.”

That’s George Young, who co-owns George & Dale’s Food & Brew, down the street at 32 Sinsinawa Ave.

“I don’t remember what Wisconsin had, but a lot of people from Wisconsin came over the bridge,” she said. “People today come in from California and say they never had a chili dog in the day but they always had them on Saturday night. I can’t wait to say, ‘Well, is it as good during the day as it was at night?’ They look at the pictures on the wall and remember everything.”

During the war years of the 1940s, GIs stationed around Dubuque came to East Dubuque to party with women from the Land of Lincoln. “Supper clubs in those days all had pianos and or organs, and hosted popular entertainers like Al Morgan [who had the hit “Jealous Heart”] and the Ink Spots,” Toots said. Comic “Lonesome” George Gobel even worked the East Dubuque circuit.

I bet he wasn’t so lonesome on Sin Street.

Back then, most of the bars had illegal gambling. Craps tables and slot machines would be hidden in secret tunnels below the taverns when word got out that federal agents were in the area. As early as 1926, Dubuque area reporters called East Dubuque “Little Cicero” as a nod to Al Capone’s headquarters in the Chicago suburb.

After hanging on for decades, Sin Street began to fade away. “It started to die out right after my dad died, which was in July 2004,” Toots said. “The Coliseum and Arena were doing real well. They were music clubs and didn’t open until 10 p.m. They brought name people in.”

The local celebrity still finds his way into Mulgrew’s.

Actor Tony Danza, a 1972 graduate of the University of Dubuque, has been in several times for a chili dog. Another recent visitor is Tom Farley, brother of late actor Chris Farley.

The bar still opens at 7 a.m. seven days a week. It closes only on Christmas Eve (at 7 p.m.), with normal hours on Christmas Day. I’d suggest a Dec. 16 visit to watch the Bears play the Packers in a place that will be evenly divided between Green Bay and Chicago fans.

Toots is the fourth-generation owner. Her great grandfather, William “Old Bill” Mulgrew, opened the establishment in 1921 as a grocery store with a restaurant in the back. Alcohol was included after Prohibition. The adjacent liquor store was added in 1978.

“This is our history,” Toots said. “My Uncle Ed took over the bar in 1957 when my great-grandfather went to Arizona for health reasons.” Toots’ father, Dallas Mulgrew, took over in 1963. “My dad worked at John Deere,” she said. “He had a good job. He came here to help my uncle. He always said, ‘I was the dumb one. I left John Deere and came here.’ And he ran it until the day he died.”

Toots literally grew up above the tavern. “My mom and dad and five kids,” she said. “We came down the steps into the back end of the bar. My sister could reach her hand in the kitchen and grab a Hershey candy bar. People sitting at the bar could see the hand coming out and reaching into the candy box.”

Toots’ daughter, Terissa, 29, is in line to be the fifth-generation owner of the establishment. Toots’ husband, Gary, is a carpenter who also helps with projects around the tavern. Their son, Gerard, 25, is also a carpenter.

The roughest stretch for Mulgrew’s came during the 1980s. “The cops were getting bad,” Toots said. “There was the drinking and driving. My dad asked me about putting it up for sale. I thought, ‘What will I do? I’ve been here since I was 15 years old.’ I never went to college. But as time went on, we’re still here.”

Dallas Mulgrew had a heart attack in the mid-1980s. “Years later, Dad got sick again,” Toots said. “He said, ‘If something happens to me, I’m going to put the bar in your name.’ I didn’t know if I really wanted it. But as time went on, the pride emerged. When my dad died, I knew I had to carry on.

“Pride is so much of this.”

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