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One for the Road

November 5, 2010

I love bars. Sorry, Mom, but there you have it.

I love the dark, quiet ones, the ones with old framed photos behind the counter, hanging right above the dusty bottle of DeKuyper’s Butterscotch Schnapps and next to the yellowing sign that reads “No Credit” or “Free Beer Tomorrow.” I love corner taverns, like this one on Cicero and McClean Avenues, on Chicago’s west side  …

… with its cheery paint job, its rustic Polish Highlands motif, and its quaint window treatment:

I love old bars by any appellation, whether they call themselves tap rooms, like this saloon on West Lawrence Avenue  …

… or cocktail lounges, like this place in Bridgeport …

… or even “kocktail” lounges, like Lil’s on Cottage Grove Avenue in Chatham:

Back in the day, the owners of such places, once as essential to Chicago neighborhoods as dry cleaners and newsstands, saw little need to advertise loudly, and so they hung out an Old Style sign, or maybe put a little martini glass next to the establishment’s name, like they did at the Kildare in Mayfair:

Or sometimes it’s a champagne coupe, with bubbles effervescing from the glass, alongside a jaunty musical note or two, like at this South Chicago joint:

These universally recognized symbols for boozy good times wink at me coyly as I walk by. Come in from the cold, they say. Clock out for a while. Have a nip of courage, or maybe—as when I happened upon this place in Belmont-Central—just a foamy mug and a slab of free happy-hour cheese:

But I seldom stop nowadays. Time is less elastic than before, and my drinking chops aren’t what they used to be. Still, once in a while I’ll pop into an unfamiliar bar and nurse a beer. Finding myself with an hour to kill downtown on a recent afternoon, I claimed a barstool at this place, on Van Buren:

I ordered a High Life and eavesdropped on the bartender—a heavy-set woman with dyed-blond hair, a smoker’s rasp, and an improbably huge bosom—as she yelled into a cell phone at someone I presumed to be her daughter about eating too much sugar. A few men trickled in and took up their places at the bar. A couple of them had ID badges from the Metropolitan Correctional Center across the street. I didn’t hear a single one of them put in an order, but the bartender placed a drink before them as soon as they sat down. She finally clicked her phone shut as I was taking the last swig of my beer. “Sorry about that, Doll,” she said, as if the phone call had interrupted a conversation we’d been having. She snatched my empty bottle and feigned a step toward the fridge. “How about another?”

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. Melinda Blum permalink
    November 5, 2010 11:30 am

    I love this post, Dave. D and I have watched almost all of the dive bars in Hollywood from the not-too-long-ago glory days of our youth be replaced by ersatz “dive” bars, complete with pseudo-“retro” ambiance, decidedly non-retro prices, and far-too-good-looking, haughty bar staff. They’re all owned by corporations with odious names like “The Vintage Bar Group” (which, I bet if you dig deep enough, must be owned by Disney–heck, everything else is). If you look carefully, though (which I know you do), there are a few stubborn holdouts. We’ll have to hit one up next time you guys are in town.

    • dmcaninch permalink*
      November 5, 2010 12:08 pm

      Come to Chicago! It’s the promised land when it comes to unreconstructed old-man bars. Barring that, head deep into the Valley! You guys are both my fellow travelers at heart, and it kind of makes me sick that we don’t live in the same city.

  2. Mark Adams permalink
    November 5, 2010 12:15 pm

    Between this post and rereading ‘Humboldt’s Gift’ last week, I feel like it’s 1978 and I’m watching Bill Veeck stub out cigarettes in his fake leg on Channel 44 (in between commercials for DeVry and American Family Insurance). Wonderful stuff.

    • dmcaninch permalink*
      November 5, 2010 12:35 pm

      Thanks man. See you at Miller’s Pub. Email me with news of the book.

  3. Ceil Bouchet permalink
    November 6, 2010 4:06 am

    great post, dave. here’s to simple pleasures and elastic time. we’ll raise a glass of sauternes (it’s “portes ouvertes” in sauternes this weekend) to your old style!

    • dmcaninch permalink*
      November 6, 2010 3:01 pm

      Given the choice of Old Style vs. Sauternes, I’d go for the grape. Thanks for reading, Ceil! Want to hear more about what you’re doing.

  4. Darren permalink
    November 9, 2010 3:01 pm

    You should check out Lincoln Tavern some time. Its off of North Ave on Wolcottin Bucktown/WP

  5. Bill Savage permalink
    February 10, 2011 11:43 pm

    Nice post–the Sky Ride is a great dive bar. The bartender you refer to is named Rasa, and she was probably yelling at her son; and I’d describe her as “strapping” rather than heavy-set–though “improbable” is accurate otherwise. I sometimes feel like something other than my usual beer while waiting for the train out of La Salle Street, but it seems like betrayal to change your order.

    Just got introduced to this blog–will be back.

    • dmcaninch permalink*
      February 11, 2011 8:59 am

      “Strapping” gets it exactly right. I aim to get back there soon … Thanks a lot for reading!

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