Sometimes you need a break from $12 craft cocktails slung by some stereotypical mustachioed “mixologist” and his vintage bowtie. Luckily, in a city like Chicago where the collars run blue, there’s no shortage of old-school dive bars that will be super unimpressed by your presence. And while many bars on the scene these days claim to be authentic, there’s only one way to know you’re in a real Chicago dive (or 25 ways, to be more precise). From Polish beers to racing turtles, here they are.
1. There’s an Old Style sign hanging out front
The absolute dead giveaway.
2. You can get booze to-go
Because you’ve stumbled into a glorious Chicago “slashie.”
3. They’ve got legit Polish brews
And actually know how to pronounce them correctly.
4. The Tamale Guy is there
And he’s not screwing around.
5. The words “packaged” and “goods” appear anywhere in the bar’s name
Always a key indicator.
6. It opens at 7am
Because Starbucks is for the weak.
7. There are nude portraits of Trump and Palin
And the owner is the one who painted them.
8. You can smoke inside (nine years after the smoking ban went into effect)
Looks like you’ve wandered into Richard’s. Don’t ask any questions.
9. There are vending machines for Lotto scratch tickets
And you will promptly spend all of your Malört money on them.
10. You can sing karaoke until 4am
We’re looking at you, Alice.
11. There are peanut shells on the floor
And, somehow, you find them in your hair. The next morning. When you’re at work.
12. It’s got one of these
And the regulars still use it.
13. Your can of Schlitz has been chilling in and is served from a rusty old cooler
Is there any other way?
14. The bathroom looks like this
And this one’s on the nicer side...
15. Dogs are allowed
And some are even sitting at the bar.
16. The owner lives upstairs
And has been there since before you were born, kiddo.
17. There are microwaves for public use
And no one knows when the hell they were last cleaned.
18. There are turtle races
At Big Joe’s, even the loser is a winner (you get a free drink!).
19. There is a jar of pickled eggs behind the bar that dates back to the Eisenhower administration
Proceed with caution. Or better yet, just don’t.
20. This is the bar’s idea of romance
Perfect for Valentine’s Day and anniversaries.
21. Questionable odors abound
It’s all part of the “atmosphere.”
22. It looks like the type of place a serial killer might frequent
And, in the case of L&L, it probably is. (Local lore dictates that both Jeffrey Dahmer and John Wayne Gacy were once customers.)
24. You do birthday shots out of an inflatable sheep’s butt
Because Friar Tuck believes in tradition.
25. It promises air conditioning as a selling point
Just what you want in the winter.
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1. Big Joe's1818 W Foster Ave, Chicago
2. L&L Tavern3207 N Clark St, Chicago
3. Cody's Public House1658 W Barry Ave, Chicago
4. Old Town Ale House219 W North Ave, Chicago
5. Richard's Bar491 N Milwaukee Ave, Chicago
6. Alice's Lounge3556 W Belmont Ave, Chicago
7. Friar Tuck3010 N Broadway St, Chicago
So you don’t put ketchup on your Chicago dogs and you’ve jumped into Lake Michigan in polar temperatures, and maybe you even actually enjoy drinking Old Style, but if you’ve never partaken in turtle racing at Big Joe’s dive bar on Foster Ave., you’re not really a true Chicagoan. Get to the Lincoln Square “tracks” early on Fridays, get in line for a chance to race the turtle of their choice, and let the reptilian race begin! If your turtle wins, you get a Big Joe’s t-shirt. If your turtle loses, you still get a free drink. Turtle racing, cheap (if not free) drinks, and t-shirts? Win,win,win.
Lakeview's L&L Tavern has a dark and storied past, but remains one of the city's more interesting dives because of it. It’s rumored that both Jeffrey Dahmer and John Wayne Gacy frequented the tavern, the former scoping out his next victim through the window facing the street, and the latter in a full clown suit. So… what are you waiting for? Sip your PBR tall boy and realy familiarize yourself with the serial killers by sitting in the very bar -- maybe even the very chair -- they once occupied. Or just go because the beers are cheap, that works too.
Thing to note: though it may look like it from the outside, and even when you step inside, Cody’s is not your average dive bar. Yes, bottles of Old Style and cans of Schlitz (among other brews) are dirt cheap, and yes you’ll pay for them in cash only in between rounds in the dart room. Those pretzel sticks at the bar, yes, they’re free. And sure, bring your dog, but also -- and here’s where it leaves “average” territory -- bring your own brats or burger patties, because there are two grills out back for patrons to use between rounds of bocce.
Old Town Ale House is an iconic Chicago dive bar whose crowd varies between comedians from nearby Second City, hipsters, tried-and-true regulars, and tourists (due in no small part to the bar's feature on Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown. ) The jukebox, which is usually playing jazz, rules the show, but don't be surprised if one of the bartenders puts on some opera to water down the crowd. The wall is covered with funky paintings of everyone from longtime regulars to celebrities and politicians... case in point: a portrait of a naked Sarah Palin holding a rifle.
First thing's first: smoking is legal -- and prevalent -- inside the confines of West Town's beloved Richard's. That said, if smoke bothers you, feel free to stop reading, but if you like fun, don't. Yes, you'll be drinking beer from a bar studded with ash trays, but it's cheap. And yes, you'll be dancing through foggy clouds of smoke, but to the music you've selected on the jukebox. It's divey, dark, and a damn good time... just know that a shower is in your immediate future.
Alice’s is largely known as one of Chicagoland’s premier spots for late-night karaoke. The Avondale dive is otherwise what you’d expect -- wood-paneled walls, cheap drinks, bowls of free snack mix, and a motley crew of lady bartenders, Alice included if you’re lucky, shaking up shots for the neighborhood’s locals. If you make your way up Belmont late one Saturday evening and the door happens to be locked, don’t despair! Ring the doorbell, and keep ringing it until someone hears you… which will likely happen when there’s a break between slurred versions of “Like a Virgin” and “Africa.”
The wooden barrel exterior of Friar Tuck belies a neon-lit, bonafide dive bar with a brick-enclosed fireplace, a smattering of randomly placed dart boards, and a pay phone. This should give you an idea of the type of establishment you’ve sauntered into, but if it doesn’t, the bar -- born in 1970 and with few, if any renovations since -- serves pitchers of your favorite cheap domestics, baskets of popcorn (for free!), and hosts a karaoke night that will keep you entertained into the wee hours of the morning. And if you’re wondering what that inflatable sheep is doing there, ask the bartender… and be prepared to take a shot of their choosing from the ruminant’s hind quarters.