With every smack of the snooze, every discontented groan that another day is underway, there's also, somewhere, the harmony of beer bottles being popped open and served to patrons of an idiosyncratic world of 7 AM drinking. Mainly catering to blue-collar, third-shift crowds, the city's early-to-rise saloons are, for the most part, hard-nosed, old-school Chicago—and, like their clientele, set in their ways and firm in their hours. Then there are those bar-liquor-store mutants ready to egg on the party from the night before, probably with some attitude.
We embarked on a "concise" tour of the scene early one Saturday, both for the purpose of conducting a profound dissection of a mostly unknown and bizarre early-morning drinking culture, and also because pairing a doughnut with a Budweiser sounded not bad.
6:55 AM There's something majestic about witnessing dawn's faint rays bounce off a fresh dusting of snow and spotlight a high-heeled nightmare standing in the middle of a Burger King drive-through, straightening her miniskirt. And that's just one whiff of the scene unfolding on the way to the G & L Fire Escape (2157 W. Grace). Located in North Center, the nearly 30-year-old neighborhood bar caters, in its earliest hours, mostly to plow drivers and police and fire third shifters—hence the joint's name and the mounted fire engine kitsch—but upon sleepwalking through the front door and finding bar stools strewn about and mops soaking up the beer and scuzz from the night before, it's pretty obvious that the early-morning party is only going to be for the two dead-eyed dudes from Logan Square.
A Budweiser at 7:05 AM tastes a lot like confusion. Drinking cans of beer at abnormal hours while camping or tailgating is a regular practice for any weekend warrior, but sauntering up to a bar with a box of Dunkin' Donuts sitting on it before the strollers have even hit the sidewalks, and ordering alcohol devoid of orange or tomato juice, requires a certain commitment to drinking—one where clocks are nothing but a bunch of dumb numbers on a power trip.
The lively bartender on duty, Annie, who resides above the Fire Escape and has been serving drinks there for 17 years, keeps things light and amiable—never letting moods turn grim—telling stories about both the working-class crews that used to frequent the bar and some of the unsavory clientele that got the boot. She's the right jolt to the morning and a good reason to lose time, if only for an hour. As we finally begin prepping for our departure to Miller's Tap, a spot that Annie discloses is, ahem, "not like this place," she scoops up a glass of ice and sets it on the bar alongside a bottle of Miller Lite. Ten seconds later a longtime customer, one she probably knew was coming before he walked out his front door, ambles in with a carton of Newports under his right arm. He sets them on the bar for her, exchanges pleasantries, and pours his beer on ice—a drinking quirk of which only a very select few are probably aware. We kill our drinks and slink out into the obnoxious sunlight.
8:07 AM Miller's Tap & Liquor Store (2204 W. Roscoe) is Roscoe Village's last Coors-soaked reminder that things weren't always boutiques, fancy gelato joints, and puppies—in fact, as recently as ten years ago, before a no-holds-barred round of gentrification, the neighborhood was actually a little grimy. Upon arrival, we're greeted by the overwhelming odor of spilled beer mixed with dirty mop water, followed by a Paul Simon-look-alike bartender—probably best described as a "man of few words"—who appears pained to have to open his mouth and shoo off a random early-morning derelict. His limited use of speech isn't a problem with the two rise-and-shine regulars, however; one swiftly pops in for a case to go, while another has tunnel vision on a stack of lotto tickets, vice-gripping a coin and scratching away with desperate determination.
Believe it or not, a couple of reasonably priced, ice-cold bottles mixes pretty well with the televised morning news—particularly when the editor in chief of the Sun-Times's Splash, Susanna Negovan, is discussing how homemade cocktails and DIY candles can make for a fabulous Oscar party. The dark hilarity of clashing agendas doesn't deter us from guzzling water-flavored beer at an hour when both of our mothers are still in bed. If anything, it makes it more fun.
8:48 AM A bar that doesn't smell like the elephant house at the zoo—that's nice. Higgins' Tavern (3259 N. Racine) is tended by Jim Higgins himself—damn right he lives above the bar—and serves as a welcome change from Miller's den of solitude and scratch-offs. Subsisting on the AM clientele of nearby hospitals like the Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center, the bar is clean and actually has beer on tap. By now, enough domestic bottles of beer have been flushed down our gullets that anything without a wide mouth or a vortex seems like an edgy choice. The slovenly 7 AM drunkard may turn his nose up at a Lagunitas IPA, but we're no drunkards—we're just, you know, kind of drunk at a Michigan State bar in Lakeview at 8:55 AM on a Saturday morning. A completely normal thing.
The tavern is decked out in Spartans gear, and Jim, who discovered his love for MSU through friends who attended the university, is effusive in talking about his team. His no-guff demeanor begins to crack as Big Ten sports are discussed, along with the catfish debacle that happened to Notre Dame's Manti Te'o. Or as Higgins refers to it, "the gift that keeps on giving."
Maybe it's the reality of the day setting in or the numbing reconfiguration of actual human senses, but the tour starts to feel more surreal than maybe it should. Walking out of Higgins', with the sun at its brightest yet and our eyes bloodshot enough to compel oncoming pedestrians to cross the street, we've mutated into some sort of vampire-zombie hybrid. Which is kind of cool, we think.
10:03 AM Being on the "other side" of 10 AM is a unique feeling. Spying brunchgoers lining up at Milk and Honey and joggers hitting the streets as you stroll into a dark bar with the intention of knocking back more than a few borders on transcendent. Rite Liquors (1649 W. Division) has the kind of environment that lends itself to getting fucked up. It's cavernous and murky, cans are shockingly inexpensive, and if you really want to, you can sit at this slashie and sip on a 40-ounce. More people drop in for packaged goods than park themselves at the bar to enjoy drinks, and for the second time this fine morning, the bar is occupied by someone incessantly gnarling through lotto tickets.
An xxx-treme car-chase show is blaring on the TV as the bartender (aka the owner's son) removes his neon-green earbuds, slings them around his neck, and cracks us some Hamm's. He's funny and friendly and kind of crude, and passes no judgment when the ante is upped and cans of Big Hurt Beer—the abominable pride and joy of White Sox hero Frank Thomas—are sipped on just shy of 11 AM. At this point, we're no longer observing the environment. Instead we're at the cash register, peering into a glass case, trying to decide what dollar scratch-offs look like winners.