Chicago's best dive bars
This long, wooden bar is helmed by a few middle-aged women who, on Sundays, mix huge batches of kamikazes and sell them for $2 a pop—but the real draw here is karaoke. If you get there and the door’s locked, don’t get discouraged. Just ring the bell over and over again (sometimes the bartenders can’t hear it over yet another rendition of “Don’t Stop Believin’”).
This inconspicuous bar is equal parts after-work dive and Antiques Roadshow. Amid dusty knickknacks and bric-a-brac, the family who runs the place will pour you a stiff drink and then try to sell you a Civil War–era revolver, a set of buffalo-themed shot glasses or anything else lying around—anything except for the patriarch’s wall-mounted marlin and the Hamm’s sign hanging out front.
A silver disco ball throws bright spots onto tomato-red walls and a mini karaoke stage at one of the longest-standing Polish joints in this area. Cocktails may be 50 cents more during Saturday-night karaoke, but Mondays still offer $5 pitchers, and a penny-pincher special can be had on nearly every other night of the week (especially if you’re into kamikazes). Go quick before this one goes the way of Wicker Park.
Vodka Collins? No. Margarita? Sorry. Apple martini? Not a chance. Better just grab a beer or a shot of whiskey and sit down. The history of this blue-collar watering hole is told through the flyers and newspaper clippings that clutter the walls. From what we can tell, it looks as if the place hasn’t changed much at all.
Truly a neighborhood hangout, this tried-and-true East Village bar is frequented by those who appreciate the tamale guy, a jukebox that stocks both white-hot jazz and doom metal, a free pool table, equally cheap drinks and a crowd that couldn’t care less if you show up in sweats.
A gurgling goldfish pond, picnic tables galore and a lush lawn all around is the scene at this West Town dive. But when it rains (or at 11pm, when the garden closes), pack up the ciggies and head back inside, where the smell of whiskey and cheap beer hangs in the air, drunks angle for a turn on the Ping-Pong tables, and the jukebox coughs out the Cars and Madonna.
As at the nearby Rainbo Club, the hipness quotient at this stripped-down Ukie V stalwart known as the Secret Squirrel has shot through its nicotine-stained ceiling, paralleling the changing demographics of the neighborhood. You can still belly up with a couple of actual Ukrainian expats in the afternoon, but eager twentysomethings with energy (and hormones) to burn rule the night.
The Clark and Belmont hood is a unique mix of Boystown dwellers, wasted Cubs fans and local renters who love a bargain. This no-frills Lakeview tavern keeps the madness at bay in favor of friendly bartenders who buy rounds during afternoon Jeopardy!, a $2 beer-of-the-month and a great collection of two-dozen Irish whiskeys.
The Bears season is best expressed by a poster of a three-year-old wearing a Bears sweater and flipping the bird in this conversation-friendly oasis in Rogers Park. Swinging saloon doors open into a vast room where a miniature Dale Earnhardt Jr. No. 8 car revolves in a slow orbit over the Formica bar, and pretzel rods in big bowls on the bar beckon the adventurous. Tuck a pint, grab a pack of cigs to go and walk a block or so to Giordano's to pick up your nightcap pizza.
Catering to those who “work” odd hours (read: unemployed indie filmmakers) and a ragtag troupe of friendly regulars, this tiny (and cheap) bar-cum–liquor store is the perfect final destination for a raucous night. Doors open at the crack of dawn and Ola, the Polish live wire who owns the joint, has been known to unlock earlier if properly coerced.
Among the framed drawings of regulars cluttering the wooden walls of this saloon-style staple are posters boasting that you’re in “le premiere dive bar” of Chicago. We don’t know where this place gets off speaking French, but it’s been around since 1958, so we’ll grant it bragging rights.
A bistro in France it ain’t, but curiously enough, this tidy, dark dive takes a few traditions from across the Atlantic. The bartender—usually a skinny, older gentleman or at least some variation on the theme—typically dresses in an immaculately crisp white button-down, and you can buy hard-boiled eggs. The larger-than-life posters of De Niro on the wall, however, are completely American.
Just above the far end of the bar peeks the white-haired head of Rose. As the tiny, friendly Macedonia native pours drafts of Old Style, she explains how crime-ridden her now-posh Lincoln Park environs were when she opened her bar 35 years ago. Joining her on a typical night is a smattering of hipsters and a few pool-playing men who are clearly quite protective of their tavern and its matriarch.
Like a secret chamber of debauchery, the red door to this State Street bar reveals no sign of what’s inside. Turns out it’s a dark, cabinish space with a mixed crowd of lewd yuppies and bitter locals. Pissed off? Up to no good? You’ll fit in just fine.
The decor of this spacious karaoke and darts bar is reminiscent of roller rinks circa the 1980s: pink and aqua neon signage, wood paneling, fantastic mullets, and all the nachos and pizza you can handle. Drinks are ridiculously cheap, plus there’s a dedicated karaoke stage and song book chock-full of corny ’70s and ’80s hits, making this place a natural choice for getting drunk and stupid with large groups of people.
The bartenders at this dim, dingy Loop hole know all the graveyard-shift regulars by name, if not by drink, and wordlessly sense when each guy needs another. Mosey through the swinging saloon-style doors at lunchtime and you’ll find polish sausages, hot dogs and chili being served to mustachioed laborers and colorfully vested Board of Trade employees alike.
This Logan Square watering hole glows with charm—or is it the string of Christmas lights behind the bar? Either way, retired rock stars put away beers next to their disciples under the soft lights, snapshots of regulars and the warm smile of the maternal owner-bartender, Maria.
Some nights, it might just be you and the bartender at this wood-paneled Ukrainian Village relic; you pour your heart out, while they pour vodka drinks with a heavy hand. The old drunks are quick to challenge you at pool, and the young Poles are obsessed with the jukebox that spits out Polish versions of early-’90s American chart toppers.