The 14 Best Dive Bars in Chicago
Pass the Malört.
What is a dive bar, exactly? It’s not defined so much as it is described. The mere mention of the phrase paints an immediate picture in your mind: cheap beers on draft, easy-sipping spirits from the well, the stickiness of the floor, the flickering of neon in the windows. All of it, lived-in. It’s a vibe—one that the Chicago scene holds in high regard. Sure, we do the whole fancy-pants craft thing quite capably, too, but on any given night we’re not typically clamoring for anything overly precious. We’d prefer to feel at ease among friends in a place that feels familiar and we’ll gladly accept dingy if it also equals dependable. That’s the true bargain of the dive. And these are the best examples our fine city has to offer.
Those looking for a respite from the Wrigleyville madness can rely on this age-old holdover, dating to the era when the neighborhood functioned as Chicago’s Little Japan and going on to serve as a community hub for ensuing generations. Today, the ever-friendly Clark Street hangout is stocked with dart boards, giant jenga, pool tables, and a whole boatload of Malört, so yeah, you know what to do.
Whether you’re an average Chicagoan searching for the nearest stiff drink or a professional clown that moonlights as a prolific serial killer, you’ll find a home at this Lakeview stalwart. But, of course, it takes way more than a reputation as John Wayne Gacy’s post-up of choice to secure a spot on this venerable list. Punk band Against Me! also frequented the joint’s dingy expanse, as did (and does) a strong and loyal fan base spanning degenerates, desperados, and even do-gooders of all makes and models. Throw in more $3 Old Style than you can (or should) drink and an absolute killer jukebox (get it?), and you’ve got yourself a dive guaranteed to stand the test of time.
If this northside fixture appears somewhat polished upon first glance, dig a little deeper and you’ll soon reveal its ride-or-die dive bar innards. Start with the grizzled bar flys stopping in for their early afternoon shots, then scan the walls to take in the, er, eclectic artwork (read: NSFW), and you’ll quickly see how this hideaway found a permanent place in the hearts of not just the late dive bar champ Anthony Bourdain but also generations of notoriously hard-drinking Second City comedians.
A honkey tonk? In Uptown? It’s an idea so crazy that it just might work—and work it has for the last 50-odd years, minus a construction-induced hiatus back in 2016. The boots are back to stompin’ inside this Clark Street country-western affair, which still rocks the same enticing neon overhang and hand painted facade—not to mention unbeatable drink specials, raucous live music, and a 4 am liquor license—that have been charming cowpokes the city over for decades.
A true Chicago original, this spot fuses bar with concert venue and rooftop drinking patio. It even holds a record store within its multi-level brick facade. Framed photos of sports stars and rock legends line the walls, in alternating turns. Atop the tables are unassuming cocktails cupped in plastic accompanying plates stacked high with some of the city’s best wings.
There is absolutely no way we could sell this place any more convincingly than a gentleman named Sean B., who penned the dive’s most recent online review: “If you would like to be harassed by a trashy yellow haired smoked out ‘blonde’ woman that listens to Poison, has not altered her ‘80s light denim ill fitting jeans nor perspectives since the 70's, has a stack of of Newport cigarettes waiting to burn, has a friend that looks like Marge Simpson with a buzz cut framed by an ash tray… then this is the place for you.”
And so it is.
Another one of those beloved Chicago ‘slashies’, Ola’s is part liquor store, part watering hole, and wholly in a league of its own. Behind the dual PBR taps, where you’d expect to find booze by the pour—you’ll instead find actual for-sale bottles. Mixers for your cocktails come by way of 2-liter soda containers lining the red linoleum countertop. The ownership is Polish. But the allure comes from being entirely unpolished. And did we mention they start serving at 7 am?
If you want to fit in here, make sure you refer to the boisterous barroom by its unofficial name: Jimmy’s. Then, make sure you come with cash because they don’t accept cards. In fact, their vintage till looks like it predates actual plastic. Once you get past the quirks, be ready to sip on Seagram’s 7 & 7s-a-plenty as live bands keep things cranking late into the evening.
Rossi’s is a Chicago institution: One of those friendly fixtures that’s always been part of the landscape—even as the surrounding neighborhood has shifted dramatically all around. From outside you might mistake it for a liquor store. That’s no mistake. This is a hybrid on-premise/off-premise affair, a concept we lovingly refer to as a ‘slashie.’ Meaning you can come in to enjoy the legendary day drinking and leave with a six-pack of Half Acre in-hand before nightfall. If you truly dig the dive scene, however, you won’t be in any rush to leave. This place checks all the boxes: dark interior, densely-packed backbar, disjointed patchwork of decals and ephemera plastered on the walls. Drink it all in along with your $5 Seagram’s gin and soda.
What originated as a polka bar almost 70 years ago has evolved into a cozy drinking den (and adjoining beer garden) showcasing local jazz and rock artists on a near-nightly basis. The well-worn interior leverages comfy bar chairs and colorful murals to enhance the kitsch factor. It surrenders none of its mid-20th Century charm—save for the polka, thankfully.
Maybe you’ve never heard of this place, but like any great dive it’s legendary among locals. Bargain-priced beverages, live music, and weekly trivia are just a few of the perks that have kept the crowds coming back for decades. There’s an unmistakable nostalgic charm wafting from the walls here. Or maybe that’s just stale beer. Either way, if it's your first time you’ll feel like a regular before you know it. And if it’s a Wednesday, game night emcee Stingo Steve is ready to welcome you with open arms.
Instantly recognized outside by its glowing Hamm’s Beer marquee, on the inside Archie’s Iowa and Rockwell Tavern has everything you wish your living room could: Conviviality, parked around a well-loved pool table and jukebox. The drinks facilitate the conversation here, rather than become it. Standing guard over the stained mahogany bar is a life-sized swordfish mounted high above the bottles. What he sees are affordable cocktails, respectably-rendered; a beer selection showcasing a handful of Chicago craft classics, and cheeseballs—so many cheeseballs, dispensed out of an oversized jug. The local landmark is notably preferred among pet-owners as one of the neighborhood’s finest dog-friendly dives.
The lightning-quick gentrification of Logan Square a decade or so ago has made truly homey dive bars a rarity there, but nevertheless, Weegee’s Lounge has persisted. Don’t be intimidated by the sharp getups often worn by the folks behind the pine, this is as unpretentious as they come. Stop by, order your favorite cocktail—their selection is huge—and settle in for a round or two of shuffleboard with a buddy.
There aren’t really many dive bars along the stretch of Lincoln Avenue that serves as Lincoln Square’s backbone, so Ricochet’s Tavern is a breath of fresh air. In contrast to the neighborhood's many outposts decked out in what is, essentially, biergarten cosplay, the laid-back authenticity dripping this joint’s simple walls is all the street cred it’ll ever need—not to mention an extensive beer list, dartboards, and TVs broadcasting soccer and rugby matches to the unwashed masses