The Meatballs of Jersey Shore have Karma; the Bulgarians of Chicago have Avant Garde, a slick, dark den of a bar on a northern stretch of Harlem Avenue. On a recent Friday night, expats nibble cured meats—cuminy lukanka, air-cured beef pasturma (both part of an assorted platter, $8–$14) ➊—and shout along to traditional anthems of love, loss and national pride between bites.
If there’s a louder sound system than the one at Avant Garde, it’s at Michella Terrace, once the hot spot of the area’s young Poles but now suffering a bit thanks to recent mass migration back to the homeland. This just means more room on the dance floor when the DJ drops your favorite Gaga or Rihanna—plus an always-open pool table in the mellower bar room, where a handful of loyal regulars take down the classic Polish pizza bread ($10) ➋, a massive split French loaf topped with tomato sauce, gobs of mozzarella and a signature squirt of ketchup.
Filling the niche of the all-day option, the Serbian Beograd Café morphs from Euro coffeehouse by day to restaurant and bar by night, with a small grocery attached. Hit it late, when traditional tunes propel small clusters of Serbs to suck down big bottles of smooth, crisp Jelen beer ($5). We opt for a flaky, cheese-stuffed pastry called burek ($6.95) and grilled sausage links known as cevapcici ($6) ➌.
Though meat and cheese universally fuel boozing, at Karolinka Club it’s all about the carbs. This aging South Side Polish dive plugs along thanks to the power of pierogi ($8/dozen) ➍, plump little pockets of kraut and mushroom or juicy ground beef, made to order and sautéed in butter with nubs of bacon. Plow through a dozen in relative peace; here, the most action we’ve seen was when a cross-eyed lifer slipped off her stool and fell flat on her ass, eliciting little concern as a couple of thick-necked old men propped her back up while the bartender silently slid the old broad a glass of water.
➊ Rakia ($6–$12), a Bulgarian brandy
➋ Okocim beer ($6), a light pilsner
➌ Vranac Pro Corde ($6), a Burgundy-style red wine
➍ Piwo z sokiem ($4), beer with raspberry syrup