Saturday, May 31, 2014

Zientek's Model Trains (and Formerly Tavern): Another Item Off the Bucket List!

Zientek's Model Trains

Like many people, I have a bucket listthings I want to see or do before I "kick the bucket."

Model railroad-wise, my bucket list includes visiting some signature model railroads like the San Diego Model Railroad Museum and the Greeley, CO Freight Station Museum. (among others).

With my daughter living in Chicago for the past year, I had a reason to go to that city more often. It allowed me to scratch two things off my list: The Great Train Story at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry and Zientek's Model Trains and Tavern.

The bar is closed, unless you like to be served trains!

Unfortunately, the tavern has been closed for three years; the owner, John Zientek, found it too expensive and onerous to get and pay for all the licenses and insurance. So, no cold ones for me!

The tavern was started by John’s grandfather in 1900 in the Chicago neighbourhood of Pilsen.

The sight that greets you when you enter the
first of the second floor train rooms.

Back then, Pilsen was predominantly a Czech and Slovak area; today it is largely Mexican and Hispanic, featuring a lively cultural and food scene.

John’s father took over the tavern, also selling tobacco products. In 1973, John began helping out; since he was a model railroader, they introduced trains in 1985 as a way to diversify their offerings.

Looking from the turret window.

Back then, it was beer on the first floor and trains on the second. Today, trains have taken over both floors.

Why was Zientek’s on my bucket list? Not just because of the tavern-trains connection. It was on my list because it takes me back to the way hobby shops used to be.

What are those things? Oh, yeah: Kits.

You may remember those days, a time when manufacturers made large numbers of model railroad items, and hobby shops bought and stocked them. With today’s limited runs, those days are long gone.

But not a Zientek’s Model Trains! The store is filled, top-to-bottom and wall-to-wall, with model railroad items. This includes many things that have long been out of stock, or made by companies that are no longer in business.

You want stock? Zientek's has stock!

John also has a lot of items with a strange word on the box: “K-i-t.” Oh, yeah, “kit.” You don’t see many of those these days.

You name it, you can probably find it at Zientek’s (in HO scale—he doesn’t have much in the way of other scales). 

Not find them easily, mind you, but that’s part of the charm and fun. I spent a couple of enjoyable hours there searching through the shelves, never knowing what treasure I might find.

It's like a museum for old model railroad items . . .  

In addition to ages-old kits, John also stocks hard-to-find detail parts, decals, dry transfers and paint.

Need a detail part?

Compared to many of today’s clean and orderly hobby shops, with maybe one or two of anything, Zientek’s is a throwback to another era.

Speaking of throwbacks, Zientek’s is also cash-only—no credit cards. And he uses an ancient non-electric cash register to ring up your sale.

John at the controls of his layout.

John also has a layout in the basement. If you ask, he might take you downstairs to see it.

If you have a model railroad bucket list, I encourage you to add Zientek’s Model Trains to it. But don’t wait too long; John is now semi-retired, and may want to fully retire one of these days. 

Zientek’s Model Trains is located at 2001 W 18th St, Chicago. (On the corner of W. 18th and Damen.) Ph: 1.312.226.9720. It can easily be reached via the CTA Pink line.

There's newer stuff at Zientek's, too.

Read more about beer and trains in an earlier post on this blog. 


  1. I hate to see that you did not approve of my subjective, yet factual comment.


  2. I don't remember what you wrote, but I recall it was critical. I wanted to celebrate Zienteks. My experience was the opposite of yours. Never-the-less, I'll post the note above.