The 15 Best Music Venues In Chicago
By Staff in Arts & Entertainment on Dec 4, 2013 8:00PM
We would argue that Chicago has the best collection of music venues in the country. From the divey-ist dives to the classiest halls we've got rooms for every variety of music and most of them are hopping seven days a week. Most towns would be happy to have one or two excellent clubs, so we're pretty spoiled rotten when it comes to our choices in where to see bands play in town. Here are some personal favorites from our staff, but there's obviously no way we could include every single one so please do weigh in with your own choices! — Tankboy
The Wrens are obviously super stoked to be playing Schubas. Photo by Jim Kopeny / Tankboy
Intimate room? Warm décor? Check. Cool bands? Check. Mac and cheese? Check. Schubas was right away one of my favorite places to see a concert in the city. Between the small size (capacity is only about 200 in the music room) and cozy wood work inside, the vibe here is comfy and friendly. As for the music, their booking is always top notch. See some of the best up and comers before they move on to larger sister venue Lincoln Hall and up from there. They’re also connected to the local scene with a lot of Chicago artists on the bill. Plus, Harmony Grill is right next door for your pre-show meal, but they also serve food in the front barroom of Schubas. The mac and cheese—with toppings you select—is a meal within itself.— Michelle Meywes
Schubas is located at 3159 N. Southport Ave.
Longtime promoter MpShows has bounced around many a venue in Chicago and have built their reputation as one of the longest lasting true independent promoters in Chicago; these are the people who got their start booking punk rock bills at Fireside Bowl back when the place was literally falling apart around you. With Township they finally have a permanent home base and while that doesn't keep them from still putting on shows at a variety of venues, it feels like the bills at Township are closest to their heart. Both local up and comers and national touring acts play this cozy room and recent upgrades to the stage and placement of the sound system make have made it a small venue with big ambitions. — Jim Kopeny / Tankboy
Township is located at 2200 N. California Ave.
When you move to a new city, the first major attraction you visit will always hold a special spot in your heart. Lucky for me, my spot is reserved for the Metro. That isn’t the only reason it’s one of my favorite venues in the city. The size is just right to catch bands on the cusp of breaking big and I can usually find a good spot around the sides of the stage for my short self. Or if I get there early a decent view from the balcony. And after a show I can head down to Smartbar and dance into the morning, a great two for one venue deal. I’ve also always had wonderful experiences with the Metro staff, both front and back of the house. The well booked list of shows doesn’t hurt either. Sure, the drinks are a bit more expensive than my liking, but that is the perfect excuse to stop next door at The Gingerman before and after the show instead. For me the Metro will always be the signature Chicago venue. — Lisa White
Metro is located at 3730 N. Clark St.
City Winery Chicago
I saw A John Waters Christmas at City Winery Sunday night with my better half and the show only solidified my appreciation of the Randolph Street complex’s performance space, one of the most intimate venues in the city. As I get older I’ve grown fond of sit-down shows and City Winery has them to spare with a lineup ranging from rock and pop to comedy to folk music to jazz and soul. The seating places guests right next to the stage which can be intimidating if you’re seeing an engaging, theatrical singer like Bettye LaVette. The size of the space makes for cozy performances between artist and audience; in some cases it’s almost as though they’re performing in your living room. — Chuck Sudo
City Winery Chicago is located at 1200 W. Randolph St.
The Beat Kitchen
The Beat Kitchen has always been a favorite place to catch shows for me. It’s the kind of place that you’re not quite sure about the first time you’re there, but it’s not hard for it to become a favorite. It has that dingy, not quite-dive bar feel and that ends up being part of the charm. You’ll be surprised at the quality of bands that frequent The Beat Kitchen. Sure, you won’t have an arena experience here, but you will have decently priced drinks and a chance to get to see the band up close and personal. Shows here are intimate because they have to be, and some of my favorite moments soaking up the music have been here. For such a small space it has a good sound, and you leave feeling like you know a band better when you see them play here. — Marielle Shaw
The Beat Kitchen is located at 2100 W Belmont Ave.
Being a person of average height, nothing grinds my gears more than a music venue with only a few choice spots from which you can, you know, actually see the band playing if it's even half full. That's why I first fell in love with the Bottom Lounge. It's small and the standing room in front of the stage isn't staggered at all but the stage is tall and the room is wide. There's plenty of space to move around and find your ideal viewing spot even when it’s a full house. Add in a rooftop tiki lounge, its burger menu that's not half bad and prime location for Union Park-housed music festival afterparties and Bottom Lounge can pretty much fill any concert goer's needs.
— Katie Karpowicz
Bottom Lounge is located at 1375 W. Lake St.
Back in September I wrote that Jazz Showcase’s current home in Dearborn Station has the chance to be a permanent one for years to come after a period of itinerant status. It’s latest incarnation is a beautiful sounding room and the Segal family are still expert bookers of local and national jazz acts after 66 years as concert promoters. Jazz Showcase is cozy, sounds great and has amazing sight lines. Sit back and tear into a couple martinis as you enjoy some adventurous music. — Chuck Sudo
Jazz Showcase is located at 806 S. Plymouth Court.
Whenever I know there's an act coming to town that I'm excited to see, I always hope it's at the Double Door because I know they're going to sound great. Is it the system, the way the room is structured, the sound crew? Who knows for sure, but everybody seems to sound great there. Bands almost have to really try hard in order to sound like trash at the Double Door. You could strap a five-stringed guitar on grandma, put her on that stage and she'll sound like a guitar god.
The room certainly has its issues. Sightlines can be obstructed with pillars, and the soundboard's location in the middle of the room isn't very convenient. So you really have to pick your spot on the floor to get a good view. However, there is no bad spot to find a good sound. There aren't any dead spots in that room. Plus, it's not hard to get there. No fewer than three bus lines stop right at the club, and the Blue Line dumps you out right across the street. If you really have to drive there and find parking, well, let's hope the band you want to see is playing on a Monday night. — Casey Moffitt
Double Door is located at 1572 N. Milwaukee Ave.
The Empty Bottle
The Empty Bottle, which occupies the corner of Western Avenue and Cortez Street in Ukranian Village, is one of the most cost-effective, comfortable, and casually lit places in the city to see underground music. The ambitious programming matched with an unassuming attitude means that any casual concertgoer can become steeped in Chicago's rich, varied music scene without breaking their bank. (Allowing people to get in for free if they RSVP through social media for select shows definitely helps.) Given any Monday, when the Bottle usually hosts their weekly free shows, music fans can howl along with hardcore, nod their head to downtempo electronic music, have their skulls crushed to metal, or jump around to exuberant garage rock. And if the show isn't free, ticket costs rarely exceed ten bucks. (You can also snag a tolerable beer for $3, and a great one for $6.) Crowds are often sizeable, but you can still even make a spot for yourself near the sharply stage right Tall Guy Corner if you so choose. Even when the 400-capacity venue is packed to the gills, such as when the club taps DJs to spin vintage soul on "Windy City Soul Club" nights, the Bottle never feels cramped or hostile. The Empty Bottle is so terrific that not even a Rolling Stone endorsement from earlier this year can spoil it. That's some serious shit right there. — Jon Graef
The Empty Bottle is located at 1035 N. Western Ave.
The Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s home is one of the most acoustically perfect venues in town and sounds pitch-perfect across a range of musical styles. I’ve watched classical performances, jazz shows, programs of pop standards, bluegrass and country music at Symphony Center on the main floor, box seats and lower and upper balconies. None of the shows have sounded bad. Best of all is you don’t have to feel intimidated to dress up for a show at Symphony Center, although it wouldn’t hurt you to at least put on a clean pair of jeans and a collared shirt. —Chuck Sudo
Symphony Center is located at 220 S. Michigan Ave.
Lincoln Hall photo by Clayton Hauck
One of the relatively newer entrants to the Chicago music game is also now one of the most consistent when it comes to quality booking. Clear sightlines from wherever you decide to stand and an amazing sound system make attending shows there a total pleasure. The warm interior is complemented by a friendly staff and a quality food menu, making Lincoln Hall the kind of place you can pleasantly spend an entire evening; literally taking in dinner and a show. A place with these accouterments could easily edge into the pretentious but somehow the joint preserves the vibe of a grungy music club—a place you can get down and decadent should you so decide—even if it doesn't look like one. — Jim Kopeny / Tankboy
Lincoln Hall is located at 2424 N. Lincoln Ave.
Some of our favorite venues are not-quite-dive bars that smell faintly of stale beer, and Cole’s is one of them. There are downsides, such as the narrow, crowded passage between entry and the backroom stage, but the perks win out: Admission’s free, drinks are cheap and there’s always good reading material on the bathroom stalls. But the diverse and often obscure musical selection is what draws us in. It’s an ideal place for new bands to perform (big names will someday talk about their first legit gig at Cole’s) and a prime spot to discover up-and-coming acts of various genres—the venue doesn’t seem quick to turn down someone with talent and a desire to perform, whether they’re big shots or small potatoes. Most of the bartenders, who happen to be inhumanly nice, are in pop and rock bands that take the stage on occasion, but you’ll hear everything from hip hop to folk. When it’s not hosting live music, it’s open-mic comedy, poetry slam or record label DJ night. And it doesn’t hurt that the owner, Cole, is one sweet piece of eye candy who can be found behind the bar most nights.
— Sarah Cobarrubias
Cole’s is located at 2338 N Milwaukee
The University of Chicago’s concert hall was recently renovated to preserve its classic Victorian interior and other architectural features while widening seats and aisles and modernizing the sound system to meet the needs of its current programming. Mandel Hall can seat nearly 900 people and its acoustics are ideal for classical concerts, opera recitals and small jazz combos. —Chuck Sudo
Mandel Hall is located at 1131 E. 57th St.
This South Loop/Motor Row venue has a dark, dingy concert room that is routinely packed with crowds and a programming lineup ranging from rock to hardcore, punk, metal and hip-hop. Don’t let the address scare you; it’s located a short walk from the Chinatown Red Line Station and across the street from a 29 bus stop. —Chuck Sudo
Reggie’s is located at 2105 S. State St.
Honky Tonk BBQ
The name of this swinging Pilsen saloon pretty much says it all. The perfect venue for music lovers with an appetite, Honky Tonk BBQ pairs live roots music with ribs, fried green tomatoes, and sweet potato pie. And while most of the local bands you’ll see here have a high-strung banjo or mournful mandolin in the bunch, you’ll also find a solid helping of electric guitars, because “honky tonk,” while fun to say, doesn’t quite cover the range of jazz and blues you can hear too. My personal favorite local jazz group, the Fat Babies, perform here every Sunday night, invoking the Roaring 20s in high Prohibition style. The stage also ranks among the most intimate in town, and there’s just enough room below it to wiggle your hips if you feel like dancing off that bacon and brew—a glass of Old Style served with a slice of bacon candy. — Melissa Wiley
Honky Tonk BBQ is located at 1800 S. Racine.