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.
“People loved him because he made everyone feel special,” said Chicago artist Tony Fitzpatrick. “He was the best front-of-the-house guy and restaurateur I ever knew. 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. He knew everybody, from the penthouse to the outhouse, and he treated everyone the same.”
Mr. Kruse, who had suffered strokes in the past, died Tuesday at Gottlieb Memorial Hospital in Melrose Park. He was 56.
Stanley’s had nights that were pure magic. Kid Rock and Eddie 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. Singer-songwriter Michael McDermott called Mr. Kruse “Chicago’s favorite barman” in a piece he wrote for the website http://www.theruggedmale.com.
McDermott immortalized him in song in “I Know a Place,” which includes this line: “When I was strugglin’, and I had no money, Donnie Kruse lended me his hand.”
Another Stanley’s regular, actor John 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.”
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.
It 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 going into 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.
“I grew up playing hockey,” he said, “so in 1993 the Blackhawks players started coming to Stanley’s. We fed all the Canadians french fries with gravy (we were the first bar to serve poutine).”