Chicago doesn't lack for great bars, from world-renowned jazz venues like the Green Mill (4802 N. Broadway, 773-878-5552) to ancient neighborhood watering holes like Hyde Park's Woodlawn Tap (1172 E. 55th St., 773-643-5516), which has catered to U. of C. students since 1948. Some places, however, hang beneath the radar, an Old Style or Schlitz sign their only calling card. These, too, are neighborhood treasures, serving up booze and bonhomie to a clientele that, from day to day, might only vary by a face or two. Here are ten of Chicago's finest.
a1, 2. Listen to the regulars and you'll learn that once upon a time there were bars all over the north side catering to the southerners who flocked to Uptown and North Center after World War II to work in manufacturing. As the jobs dried up most of the bars closed down. Conventional wisdom has it that only two remain: Carol's Pub (4659 N. Clark, 773-334-2402), which has gained a campy popularity thanks to gentrification, and June's Inn (4333 N. Western, 773-463-3122), which has not. June's is dark and unlovely, but the booze is cheap, the people are friendly, and the jukebox is one of the best in town, with Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard sharing the bill with R.E.M. and U2.
a3. On an ill-lit stretch of Glenwood Avenue between Farwell and Morse, hard by the el tracks, lies Duke's (6920 N. Glenwood, 773-764-2826). Dank to the point of being fetid, this pearl is for serious drinkers only. Don't barge in expecting to own the place--keep your head low, have a beer and a shot, and listen to the old-timers talk about Chicago history or maybe their most recent divorce. There's a dartboard if you get tired of the alcoholic banter.
a4. If you travel on Lincoln Avenue chances are you've wandered past Johnny's (3425 N. Lincoln, 773-248-3000) without even realizing it was a place of business. The only evidence is the Hamm's sign, and it looks like someone forgot to take it down. Johnny usually gets around to open-ing by about 9 PM, and there's no use complaining about it. Don't expect anything except for Johnny himself to be a bit crotchety, but do enjoy the general emptiness, which is great if you want to drink alone. The bar's also much cheaper than its gussied-up counterparts up and down the street, and the jukebox is nothing to sneer at. Just be ready to go when Johnny decides it's closing time, which could be any time at all.
a5. Crammed between the Loop and the burgeoning tourist mecca of River North is Rossi's (412 N. State, 312-644-5775), an old-fashioned tavern in a sea of Hard Rocks and Rock Bottoms. There you'll rub elbows with bike messengers, city workers, the occasional suit, and perhaps a Reader employee or two. Ask for a martini and you might get a dirty look, but otherwise the decent beer list and surprisingly modern jukebox make for a good downtown drink.
a6. Cal's (400 S. Wells, 312-922-6392) is a tiny beer-and-a-shot joint in the South Loop favored by punks, bike messengers, and traders who lost their asses in the market before noon. Cal's Bukowski-esque charm gives way to an even nuttier atmosphere on the weekends, when live music brings an even more debauched crowd, but the prices are much better than any you'll find at the restaurant bars in the neighborhood. Yeah, you can still smoke.
a7. When Second City set up shop in the north-side neighborhood of Old Town, the area was full of dives and peep shows. Most of the grit has been run off by condo developers, sky-high rents, and the general malaise brought on by gentrification, but the Old Town Ale House (219 W. North, 312-944-7020) has stuck it out, lasting almost six decades. Genteel if shabby, the Old Town has the kind of off-the-cuff cool that only years of service can bring. The comfy stools and furniture are perfect for lounging with a pint and a newspaper or a paperback from the bookshelf. Didn't finish the book? Take it home. Bonus: the Pipers Alley movie theater is right across the street, which makes for an easy date situation.
a8. According to its owner, Din Papageorgakis, the Nisei Lounge (3439 N. Sheffield, 773-525-0557) has the oldest liquor license in Wrigleyville. The second-generation Japanese, or nisei, who used to call the neighborhood home have long fled to the suburbs, but the bar remains a blue-collar holdout in an increasingly corporate neighborhood. Dark and scruffy with an odd layout thanks to a long-gone goldfish pond, it's hardly picturesque, but character counts for a lot and the regulars who more or less live here would have it no other way. A fine place to watch the Cubs without having to deal with the yammering idiots just up the street. Pool, darts, and a great jukebox (Elton John, Modest Mouse, and Sinatra to name a few) complete the picture.
a9. Just across the street from the recently reopened Rockwell stop on the Brown Line you can catch a game at the Time Out Sports Bar (4641 N. Rockwell, 773-583-4888). Less a sports bar than a replica of your uncle's basement circa 1972--complete with wood paneling, bright lights, and 16-inch softball memorabilia--the Time Out is populated by a balanced mix of old-time regulars and recent arrivals to Lincoln Square. After a few drinks it feels like a family reunion, with the old folks looking askance at the youngsters. Don't worry, you'll be safe, and if you need to make a quick getaway the train is a ten-second trot across the street.
a10. Finally, there's the Charleston (2076 N. Hoyne, 773-489-4757). This classic neighborhood tavern is an oasis amid the gazillion-dollar rehabs and new construction of Bucktown. The antique bar back, oaken beer coolers, live music, and general old-timey feel go well with a beer list that includes Newcastle, Harp, and Guinness. Warning: the owner banned smoking last fall in anticipation of the impending citywide ban, so you'll have to hit the pavement to have a drag.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Andrea Bauer.