When you walk in you’ll be greeted by Mike and his rapid-fire stories, told in a thick Greek accent and punctuated every 30 seconds or so by a spontaneous combustion of laughter and a vigorous slap of his hand on the bar. Mike bought the joint in 1983 when he was a young real estate agent looking to make a quick buck, sensing the business was a good investment after emigrating with just $100 to his name.
The interior consists of little more than a long wooden bar, separating the packaged goods side from the drinkin’ side, plus a few TVs, a row of stools, a pool table, and the well-used scratch-off lotto machine sandwiched between the bar and checkout counter. As with most working-class dives of its ilk, walking into Rite for the first time can be a bit intimidating, as the grizzled old guys who’ve been drinking all day peer up at you from their half-finished pints of Old Style. But the more you come here, the more you become one of them, for better or worse. The protocol is easy to follow: show up, sit down, and order a drink. No matter who you are or who’s after you, you'll be welcome.
While Mike’s done little more than paint and add some flooring since he bought Rite, the rest of Wicker Park has gentrified immensely, becoming one of the most expensive places to live in all of Chicago. “Back then it was a bad neighborhood,” he says of the ‘80s. “There were a lot of drugs, a lot of needles outside, a lot of gangs, a lot of prostitutes.” He even recalls one instance when a man was hacked to death with a machete next door. Instead of cut-rate liquors, he says, “They used to call it 'cut-throat.'”
He isn’t shy about disclosing the fact that he has three guns, but the scene these days is much safer -- as opposed to when the cops came by looking for a Rite regular who’d cut up his girlfriend and stashed her remains in a fridge. And while it’s been decades since Wicker Park enjoyed its peak cool status in the early- to mid-‘90s as home to bands like Smashing Pumpkins, Liz Phair, and Urge Overkill, the area around the Division Street strip still clings to some old-school dives like Rite. Rainbo, Phyllis’, Gold Star, Innertown Pub, and Zakopane all help retain the neighborhood’s history despite the gitzy new digs constantly springing up all around them.
“Now, there a lot of young people, a lot of yuppies,” Mike says of the Rite clientele. “They like coming here.” The appeal, he says, is the place offers them a different vibe than newer bars on the block like Anthem and Bangers & Lace. His prices don’t hurt, either -- a $4 shot at Rite would cost “$7 or $8 across the street.”