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Donnie Kruse (right) with actor John Cusack. | Twitter

Donnie Kruse, ‘Chicago’s favorite barman,’ dead at 57

SHARE Donnie Kruse, ‘Chicago’s favorite barman,’ dead at 57
SHARE Donnie Kruse, ‘Chicago’s favorite barman,’ dead at 57

Donnie Kruse was like the phrase on his Twitter account: “Straw that Stirs the Drink.”

He connected thousands of people, creating good times at his restaurant in Lincoln Park, Stanley’s Kitchen and Tap, 1970 N. Lincoln Ave.

“This guy was the mayor of any room he walked into,” said Chicago artist Tony Fitzpatrick.

“People loved him because he made everyone feel special,” Fitzpatrick said.“Donnie was friends with Eddie Vedder. He was also friends with Edward the homeless guy. It didn’t matter who you were. Everyone had some grace note in Donnie Kruse’s generous view of humanity.”

Mr. Kruse, who suffered strokes in the past, died Tuesday at Gottlieb Memorial Hospital in Melrose Park. He was 57.

“To me, it was Chicago’s ‘Cheers,’ ” Tim O’Brien, co-president of Vienna Beef, said of Stanley’s.

“He was like the Toots Shor of Chicago,” saidactor Mike Starr, comparing Mr. Kruse to the legendary New York restaurateur.

Mike Starr (right) and Robert De Niro in “Goodfellas.” | youtube.com

Mike Starr (right) and Robert De Niro in “Goodfellas.” | youtube.com

Starr, who has appeared in “Goodfellas” and other films, said he got to know Mr. Kruse while living in Chicago during his wife’s medical training. When he took people’s advice to visit Stanley’s, Starr said, “It was like going to the holodeck on ‘Star Trek.’ It opened up years of adventures for me.”

Stanley’s had nights that were pure magic. Kid Rock and Vedder came in and sang karaoke. Chris Chelios hung out, as well as a lot of other Blackhawks. Michael Jordan, Chris Farley, Brett and Bobby Hull and actors D.B. Sweeney and Stephen Baldwin dropped by.

When Fitzpatrick met Mr. Kruse several years ago, headmired his Pogues T-shirt. Mr. Kruse offered to get him one and did. “He got it from the Pogues,” the artist said.

Singer-songwriter Michael McDermott dubbed Mr. Kruse “Chicago’s favorite barman” in a piece he wrote for the website theruggedmale.com.

Michael McDermott.

Michael McDermott.

McDermott immortalized him in song in “I Know a Place,” which includes the line: “When I was strugglin’, and I had no money, Donnie Kruse lended me his hand.”

That happened around 2002, McDermott said Wednesday.“I was totally down and out, just a sniveling, sneezing, fallen-from-grace rock-star/drug addict,” he said. “It was the darkest point.”

Enter Mr. Kruse, who extended a lifeline by hiring him to play at Stanley’s.

Mr. Kruse helped many others, too, hiring them for bartending and catering work.

“He gave a lot of people jobs and didn’t broadcast it,” said O’Brien.“He probably ran [Stanley’s] less to make money and to win awards than he did because he felt his corner bar was part of the fabric of Chicago.”

Inside Stanley’s Kitchen and Tap. | Provided photo

Inside Stanley’s Kitchen and Tap. | Provided photo

“I can’t count the times I would see him kind of wordlessly go out the side door with a bag of food and give it to a homeless person,” Fitzpatrick said.

A couple of years ago, when Fitzpatrick was recovering from heart surgery, Mr. Kruse spent hours in his hospital room. “He would bring his laptop in, and we would watch hockey fights,” he said.

One Stanley’s regular was a mentally ill man whom Mr. Kruse often fed and took to the racetrack, said friend Coley Newell. “Donnie and I, we went to the track with him one day, and the following day, we’d be hanging out with John Cusack. That’s who Donnie was.”

Kid Rock and Donnie Kruse | Kidrock.com photo

Kid Rock and Donnie Kruse | Kidrock.com photo

Cusack called Mr. Kruse “an utterly original Chicago icon, mischief maker, Irish trickster” on Twitter, writing, “Donnie was link between thousands — all fun heart filled roads seemed to leed through him in chi town.”

Kid Rock tweeted Thursday about his death, saying: “Chicago has another angel watching over her. I will always cherish the good times at Stanley’s and all the others we shared. Rest in peace Donnie Kruse, myself and all your Detroit friends miss you already.”

Mr. Kruse formerly was involved in the now-closed restaurants BB’s and Butterfield 8.

Stanley’s serves comfort food. It’s known for its fried chicken and mashed potatoes and StanBurger. It’s an official bar for University of Texas Longhorns fans.

The eatery was founded in 1993 by Mr. Kruse, Jeff Kalish and Jack Binyon, grandson of the founder of Binyon’s, a restaurant whose turtle soup became a favorite of judges and lawyers when it was located near Chicago’s Dirksen Federal Building.

Mr. Kruse talked about his start in the business with Pippco blogger Autumn Pippenburg last year, telling her: “When I was in college, my roommates and I opened a bar in our house at Southern Illinois University. That was my first actual bar. We use to make $1,000 over the weekend, but then we got in trouble and had to shut it down. That was back in 1977.”

He later worked in marketing and advertising before entering the restaurant business.

“When Stanley’s opened in 1993, everyone thought we were crazy, but I thought that a fun bar and home-cooked food was what the neighborhood needed,” he told Pippco. “We had extraordinary food where no one else did. We opened with fried chicken, burgers and mac n’ cheese, for what’s been already 23 years! And that’s what’s still hot right now. Fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy is still our specialty.”

Newell said Mr. Kruse went to Thornwood High School in South Holland. His grandfather sold Scotch and his father was involved in catering and vending-machine businesses.

Heis survived by his mother, Pat Kruse, and sisters Pam Conlon and Jill Vierck, Newell said. Visitation is set for 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday at St. Michael in Old Town Church, with the funeral there at 10 a.m. Wednesday.

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