Even during this boom of high-end mixology, vinification and brewing, there’s still plenty of room for the neighborhood corner tavern and dive bar.
Though dive bars have evolved in the last 20 years, these local watering holes offer respite from crowded clubs and pretension. At a dive bar, it’s come as you are. The late Anthony Bourdain routinely frequented dive bars on his many shows, and Guy Fieri has made them cool again in the Food Network’s Diners, Drive-ins and Dives. Many dive bars are now offering craft beer and sophisticated cocktails to merge elevated drinking culture with the inviting dive bar ambiance. On the other hand, there still exists plenty of dives where the wood is older than most of its patrons, and the top item on the menu is a cheap shot and a beer.
Chicago, a city with more than 1,000 bars in operation, seemingly has a bar on every corner—and many of them have been in operation for decades, if not more than a century. While they all share the dive bar bond, each offers a unique story and experience. We can’t list them all, but here are some of our favorite dive bars in Chicago.
Even on Chicago’s infamous State Street, there exists a well-known dive bar. On the outside, Rossi’s has a somewhat run-down forest green storefront adorned with posters and signs. Its exterior reminds one of every liquor store on every TV police drama. You might wonder if it’s safe to go inside. It is, and you’ll love it. In fact, Rossi’s is a bottle shop and bar, serving everything from common macro beer to eclectic craft brews, and the cheapest wines and liquors to the finest kinds. One can even attend Goose Island events featuring Bourbon County Brand Stout, the highly-coveted, limited-edition bourbon barrel aged beers released to throngs of fans each November.
Open since 1926, Richard’s Bar hasn’t been updated in years, yet it’s more popular than ever. The menu board behind the bar is reminiscent of a fast food place or 7-11 in the 1950s. There’s a ton of memorabilia and mob photos (it did open during Prohibition, after all) found throughout the establishment, but what matters at Richard’s is the commitment to the old-school dive bar mentality. Heck, people even smoke here despite it being illegal. At Richard’s, you can have a shot of whiskey and several Hamm’s for less than the average price of one movie ticket. And if that’s not enough, they offer hard-boiled eggs for 75¢ ”at your own risk.”
The dimly lit Innertown Pub, “Home of the Arts” has been a staple of the dive bar-heavy Ukrainian Village neighborhood for several decades. Though its history dates back to Prohibition, the Innertown Pub gained local fame during the 1990s when it served as home to the work of numerous local, bohemian artists. But it’s not some posh, museum-style bar. In addition to the artwork, there’s enough crazy knick-knacks and Elvis memorabilia. Throw in plenty of wood, dim lighting, a jukebox and free pool, and you know you’re at a dive bar. But like many dives these days, there’s not only cheap beer and liquor, but also craft beer, quality drinks and plenty of good music.
Easy Bar represents some of the changes occurring within the dive bar world. Though it retains the dive bar culture and vibe, the cocktail, beer and entertainment offerings are more elevated than the typical watering hole. Easy Bar even has a sidewalk patio and a back room with a private bar that’s available to rent for private parties. But, like any proper dive bar, there’s no sign of pretension, and the space boasts leather seats, neon lights and a jukebox. The bar offers patrons 19 beers on tap, and a seasonal cocktail menu. The current menu includes drinks like the ’69 El Camino, made with Banhez Mezcal, Chareau Aloe Liqueur, lime and simple syrup, and the Tree Star mixed with Ketel One Cucumber Mint Vodka, Cheongsam Smokey Mist liqueur, lime, simple syrup and soda, garnished with a mini dinosaur—a nod to the general manager’s love for the prehistoric creature.
Archie’s Iowa Rockwell Tavern
Archie’s is a bar that sits on a quiet residential block, a bit removed from any popular bar regions. It celebrated its 75th anniversary in grand style in 2018, with nearly 1,000 guests in attendance for the party. At the event, the bar raised more than $4,000 for Hope For The Day and for the Puerto Rican Cultural Association of Chicago’s fund to help those displaced from Hurricane Maria, which might tell you how seriously they take their title of neighborhood bar. But, what makes Archie’s special, besides plenty of booze—fine or otherwise—is the complimentary cheese balls.
This old school bar has a street level storefront and residential rooms above, which harkens back to the taverns of yesteryear. It makes sense because Chipp Inn opened its doors in 1897. The cash-only bar loves its Hamm’s, but there’s no shortage of craft beer, too. Every year, Half Acre Brewing hosts its Drunken Spelling Bee. Of course, if a battle of wits isn’t your jam, you can always attend their yearly Chili Cook Off when the winner gets their name etched on the Silver Plunger.
Small Bar emerged in 1907, smack dab in the middle of a residential block, and it’s still that way today. Don’t be surprised to see a few motorcycles parked out front. Though dive in spirit with its stocked bar, chalk menus, tin ceilings and brick walls, it’s a craft beer haven. Small Bar offers more than 60 bottled beers and another 13 on tap, ranging from PBR to some of Chicago’s best barrel-aged and specialty beers. Despite its compact size (you have to be careful not to open the bathroom door into a server walking in and out of the kitchen), Small Bar offers excellent gastropub fare like fried calamari and baked goat cheese. Opt for the tater tots if you really want to get into the dive bar spirit.
The two-floor Liars Club is said to be haunted by the ghost of a woman who was brutally murdered by her husband in what was the upstairs apartment. But even if you don’t believe in ghosts, you’ll enjoy Liar’s Club for its great drinks, awesome events, diverse music and unique ambiance. The interior design is part dive bar, part lounge, part insane asylum and part 70s dance club. The brick walls have padding, the carpet is black and the doors are metal. There’s upholstered furniture in the middle with a giant lit fez hat. Liar’s also has a dance floor with a disco ball and flashing lights.
Old Town Ale House
Located a stone’s throw from Second City, an improv theater that has cultivated an array of Saturday Night Live actors, Old Town Ale House has been the favorite hangout of celebs like John Belushi, Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, George Wendt, Chris Farley, Steve Goodman and Roger Ebert. But make no mistake, Old Town Ale House is not a trendy place that caters to famous folks. Old Town is dark, dingy and possesses the obligatory tin ceiling along with a beaten up wooden bar and floor. Its most prominent feature is a collection of nearly 150 regulars’ portraits from the early 70s up to the present day, provided by artist Bruce Elliot.
Nisei Lounge is a classic dive bar located close to Wrigley Field. Few bars provide more of Chicago’s Jeppson’s Malört, the bitter, oft-maligned, but locally loved Bäsk liquor, which is a Swedish-style spiced spirit that’s flavored with wormwood. Nisei not only pours shot after shot but also sells Malört candles. Pair it with an Old Style (aka a “Chicago Handshake”) or something from their impressive collection of craft beers, both on tap and in bottles. If you prefer to avoid the overly bitter Chicago spirit, try one of their many whiskies.
L&L Tavern earned the title “Creepiest Bar in the USA” from Google because two of Chicago’s most notorious serial killers—Jeffrey Dahmer and John Wayne Gacy—routinely frequented the establishment. But Anthony Bourdain also made an appearance at L&L to film an episode of his former Travel Channel show The Layover. Its famous patrons aside, L&L is an approachable city tavern that caters to anyone and everyone, from those wearing suits to those with dirty jeans and boots. Expect to find an abundance of Irish whiskey and plenty of Malört.
Bernice’s is no faux dive bar. You can down a cheap bottle of PBR and a shot of Evan Williams while looking at a host of old decor. But, there’s also Lithuanian beers, movie nights, music, cocktail specials and a terrific Bloody Mary. And, of course, Stingo. The owner, Steve, has his own way of hosting bingo night. Stingo takes about three hours to play, and prizes include cheese balls and mystery boxes.
This friendly watering hole features a bar built from scratch—that includes church pews for the bar top—and is the quintessential modern-day, no-frills dive bar. When one enters The Barrel, the owners and bartenders reach out to shake your hand and often introduce you to those who are already at the bar. The Barrel not only has plenty of macros to satisfy the typical dive bar patron, but its owners are passionate about Illinois craft beer and superb cocktails. It’s a great place for comedy, watching the game and, above all, forgetting about all the problems in the world. A more inviting place might be tough to find.