The 13 Best Dive Bars In Chicago—2014 Edition
We know. We know. You're reading the headline and asking yourselves, "Didn't Chicagoist publish a best dive bars list last year?
Well, by God, we did!
And here we are again. The genius and Achilles heel to making listicles like these is the immediate response. None of these lists will come anywhere near being complete and comprehensive. (Although a few come damn close.) And the response from our readership both on Chicagoist and our social media presences almost always veers toward the irate: "You forgot this!" "You missed that!" "Any list that doesn't include (my favorite) is automatically suspect."
We aren't mindreaders. We know what we like and attempt to offer our picks to you for the express purpose of spurring discussion and maybe, just maybe, learning more about Chicago outside of our own experiences. Last year's dive bars list was one of the more debated ones in our ongoing "best of Chicagoist" series and we're sure to get more comments about what isn't on this year's dive bar list.
So before we "dive" into this year's list (which we made sure to not cannibalize from last years) try to remember a couple things:
- We didn't "forget," "miss," or "omit" anything.
- If your favorite dive bar isn't on the list you can do one of two things: share it with us in the comments or on social media ("you should visit this place") so we can check it out or breathe a sigh of relief we don't know about it and your perfect secret spot is safe.
Now take this list to your favorite dive bar, enjoy reading it over a shot and a beer and maybe make plans to visit one of the 13 dives we included this year.
A little Polish will help you at places like Ola's Liquor. (Photo credit: Curtis Locke)
I lived in the Ukrainian Village for a spell in the mid-90s before it started to gentrify and still don’t know how I didn’t develop a diseased liver. Living within walking distance between Tuman’s Alcohol Abuse Center, Rainbo, J&M Tap and this Polish bar provided a crash course in cheap drinking and people watching, and spoiled me for years with all the money I saved by having no care for what I imbibed. Ola’s will gladly sell you a six-pack of whatever they have in their coolers, some scratch-off lottery tickets and maybe a half-pint of Brass Monkey. But you should spend a good hour or three bellied to the bar, pounding back beers and watching the customers around you. Good times. —Chuck Sudo
Ola’s Liquors is located at 947 N. Damen Ave., 773-384-7250.
There’s a certain element of cheese to Moe’s Tavern—the Avondale watering hole was originally designed with a Simpsons theme (a fitting motif considering the owner is named Moe, or Maureen) but had to make changes after Fox sent her a cease and desist. Today, it’s a beloved neighborhood dive with some slightly altered Simpsons characters painted on the walls and all the good-time essentials: pool table, free foosball, old-timey jukebox as well as a digital one, darts and a ridiculously friendly staff. Old Milwaukee is only a buck fifty, but the bar also has a decent selection of local brews at reasonable prices. On Friday and Saturday nights, Chicago (and occasionally national) acts take the stage, while Sundays and Wednesdays are dedicated to open-mic nights when you can hear up-and-coming acts and coax your drunk friends into performing in front of a room full of strangers. — Sarah Cobarrubias
Moe’s Tavern is located at 2937 N Milwaukee
Cody’s Public House
Your first impression of Cody’s will probably be of your average neighborhood dive. Take a moment to let the place sink in though and you’ll realize it’s a pretty cool hangout. Sure, the bar pretzels are stale and the owners certainly didn’t exhaust themselves when decorating the interior but the beer list is actually quite nice, you can typically enjoy the pool table without a wait and the patio will remind you of that backyard you wish you had. — Katie Karpowicz
Cody’s Public House is located at 1658 W. Barry Ave.
Cole's (Photo credit: Rachelle Bowden)
Young, hipster locals tend to crowd the pool table and bar stools at Cole’s, the adored venue and dive bar in the part of Logan Square usually reserved for lost, confused artists. You never know whether you’ll find a hardcore band thrashing about on a stage or a projected independent documentary about man-on-donkey love. The best part about drinking at Cole’s is the curtain that sections off the bar from the venue space, so if the entertainment is less than that, you can always retire to the front of the house. The tap is always studded with essential and trusty craft choices, like Old #38 Nitro, Allagash White or Stiegl Pilsner for only $5. The staff is always friendly and there’s usually a cast of drunken, rowdy characters on a weekend night, though it rarely gets overcrowded. What more can you ask for in a neighborhood haunt? — Erika Kubick
Cole’s is located at 2338 N Milwaukee Ave.
Archie’s Iowa & Rockwell Tavern
Archie’s has all the makings of a classic dive bar: delightfully random wall art, stacks of communal board games, a popcorn machine with those little red serving baskets and a handwritten sign with “to go” prices for beer posted over the bar. It’s known as a hangout for “regulars” but come in with a cool crowd and you’ll quickly find yourself right in the mix. — Katie Karpowicz
Archie’s Iowa & Rockwell Tavern is located at 2600 W. Iowa St.
Ted’s Firewater Saloon
I almost didn’t want to share the existence of this hole in the wall where West Lawn borders Gage Park but I’m the guy who likes to share the wealth. Drink prices are so cheap here the bartenders may as well be giving them away and, depending on how many shots they’ve had with customers, they’re giving away a lot. A sticker on the front door reads “protected by loaded guns” and the bars wall is decorated with vintage firearms. (The few times I’ve half-jokingly asked if the guns were actually loaded were met with noncommittal answers.) On one visit there were signs posted on the bathroom doors instructing only one person enter the rest rooms at a time, lest you have groups of three snorting rails of cocaine off a piss-splattered toilet seat. Ted’s is the kind of bar where you can enter with $20 and leave with enough change for a slice of pizza and a tip. It’s also the exact type of Chicago bar everyone should visit once. —Chuck Sudo
Ted’s Firewater Saloon is located at 5834 S. Kedzie Ave., 773-436-8444.
Wrigleyville as we know it today is a recent phenomenon. Clark Street, from Diversey to Lawrence, used to be where economically disadvantaged hillbillies—following the routes black southerners used to travel north to escape Dixie—would settle looking for a better life. The venerable Uptown honky tonk Carol’s is the sole survivor of that era and a reminder that White Trash, like cockroaches, are a proud species nearly impossible to fully eradicate. (And as a descendant of Virginia hillbillies on my mother's side who landed on Chicago’s West Side before the Great Depression, I like that.) Cowboy hats are en vogue here whether they’re worn to complement Western wear or ironically by hipsters, but as long as you pay in cash and respect the space the staff here doesn't mind. The live music plays into the wee small hours, the Old Style and PBR are almost always backed with a shot and the vibe is pure fun. If you make it to sunrise leaving Carol’s give your eyes time to adjust to the light —Chuck Sudo
Carol’s Pub is located at 4659 N. Clark St., 773-334-2402.
Bernice's Tavern (Photo credit: Chuck Sudo/Chicagoist)
This Bridgeport tavern is a throwback to the days where some bars would allow customers to enter after ringing a buzzer. Even though a sign has announced Bernice’s as a public house for years the buzzer is still used to let people inside. Once you cross the door, take some time to marvel at some of the best bar decorations in Chicago. Bernice’s is packed with old beer clocks, ceramic bourbon containers, tchotchkes, gewgaws and gimcracks. It’s like stepping into the basement bar of your life of the party uncle. Bernice’s has the standard cheap beers as well as an assortment of Polish and Lithuanian beers for folks who don’t want to bow down before the light beer altar, as well as Malort and other foul shots and one of Chicago’s best-curated jukeboxes. That last item we’ll save for a future list. —Chuck Sudo
Bernice’s Tavern is located at 3238 S. Halsted St.
Long ago when I was thinking of moving to Chicago for college, my Dad brought me up to visit for a poetry conference and a bunch of writers took us to Zakopane, where some gruff blonde women never asked my age (17) but fed me Shirley Temples all night long while a poet I admired crawled on top of a pool table and drunkenly serenaded everyone with Prince’s “Kiss.” The bar was a strange mix of people, cheap and a bit busted looking but had a campy charm. After stopping in many times since that night years ago, Zakopane hasn’t changed at all. Despite the neighborhood changing in many ways, you’ll still find affordable strong drinks (the cheap vodka pours heavy here), blonde icy bartenders chatting with old drunk men in Polish and a jukebox full of European and US pop music from many moons ago. Be polite and not fussy with your drink order, bring cash (don’t ever be that person that wants to start a tab at a dive bar, even if they accept card) and enjoy the atmosphere that hasn’t been gobbled up by the trendy Division street rehab. — Lisa White
Zakopane is located at 1734 W. Division St.
You probably know the Tuck as that bar with a barrel for a door on the edge of the trendier strip of Broadway, but if you step inside you’ll be rewarded with decent pours, friendly service and free popcorn. The novelty of a bar sorta shaped like a barrel got me in the door one night but I’ve been going back for years when I’m in the area. Sadly my favorite waitress left a while back, she was like a cool big sister and would give you free shots and sassy life advice, but I’ve always had friendly chatty service from the bartenders and door guys. The beer is decent and they usually have some fruity booze concoction on special for $5 or less. I haven’t seen it happen in a while, but on your birthday you use to get a free shot that you were made to take out of a blow up sheep doll’s butt. The usual bar tomfoolery. They have karaoke on certain nights if that is your thing. A group of friends and I went there one Friday and were told it was “fun hat Friday” and given a box of hats to choose from to wear. Not the most hygienic, but drunk people don’t seem to mind. What matters is they try to be a friendly and fun place with no pretense, and that is something you can appreciate when walking through the door. — Lisa White
Friar Tuck is located at 3010 N. Broadway St.
For the loop office workers who need a cheap drink in a nice dive after work, Sky-Ride has you covered. Situated under the brown line tracks near the Board of Trade and a Metra station, the small wood panel and mirror joint is usually full of a mix of old men nursing beers at the bar and tables of co-workers drinking away their cares from the day. The bar is manned by two buxom blondes that are friendly with strangers but seem to really take care of and love their regulars. It’s the kind of place where if you go often, the bartender will probably start making your drink when you walk in the door and ask you how your kids/wife/parents are when you sit down. The music is a bit all over the place, but there ain’t nothing wrong with nursing some Ten High bourbon during a double play of ZZ Top and George Jones. Regulars are chatty, a nice older man asked me about my day before finishing his beer, hopping in his Hoveround and riding off into the night. It’s sorta like hanging out in your aunt or grandma’s basement if they had cheap liquor and a decent soundtrack, not a bad way to spend your evening after clocking out. — Lisa White
Sky-Ride Tap is located at 105 W. Van Buren St.
The Falcon Inn
This Hyde Park hovel still smells like stale cigarette smoke in spots six years after Illinois’ smoking ban went into effect. It also has the faint stench of urine I’ve come to expect in the best dive bars. Like alternate universe Nick the Bartender in It’s a Wonderful Life, The Falcon serves hard drinks for people who want to get drunk fast, although they do allow some space for characters to give the place “atmosphere.” Lucky that Hyde Park—Chicago’s answer to Middle Earth—has plenty of those. Your best bets to visit are Tuesdays and Sundays, when neighborhood legend Mario Smith (host of WHPK’s “News From the Service Entrance” radio show) holds down the bar. —Chuck Sudo
The Falcon Inn is located at 1601 E. 53rd St.
One of two Ukrainian Village spots on our list, this corner bar at Leavitt and Augusta Boulevard has plenty of cheap beer, cheaper shots and unlimited pretzel sticks to keep you from going completely over the bend. —Chuck Sudo
J&M Tap is located at 957 N. Leavitt St., 773-235-0499