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The bar next door

Chicago's neighborhood spots hang on by keying into nostalgia, good vibes

(Lenny Gilmore/Redeye )
April 18, 2012|By Emily Van Zandt, RedEye

It's no secret that neighborhood taverns in Chicago are a dying breed. Licensing can be nearly impossible, neighbors can be hesitant to support a new tavern on their block, and dry wards and liquor moratoriums can complicate the process.

But for the few that remain open—the ones that look like houses with illuminated signs in the distance, the ones that still give out free snacks and stock Old Milwaukee—crowds remain loyal, with many 20- and 30-somethings adopting them as their own.

Recently, a few bar owners have begun taking over older spots and reimagining them for a younger clientele. In North Center, new-ish bar The Green Lady makes the most of its decades-old space by trying to attract people from just a few blocks away. Bars such as Bonny's and Scofflaw in Logan Square and Tuman's in Ukrainian Village have worked to appeal to crowds nearby by keeping prices low and adding extras such as DJ nights.

While some may not see the difference between a neighborhood tavern and just-another-dive, we define a neighborhood bar as one that is on a primarily residential stretch of road. Typically on a corner. No food (unless you bring it). Rarely a destination spot for those outside the neighborhood.

With these characteristics in mind, we spent three nights with three neighborhood tavern devotees—a trio who work daily in the neighborhood bar scene and picked spots based on their authenticity—to see what's happening in these off-the-beaten-path stops.

THE HOST: DANNY SHAPIRO

You might remember his name from his time behind the bar at Perennial (now Perennial Virant) and The Whistler, but now Danny Shapiro is focused on a neighborhood bar of his own—Scofflaw. The gin-centric bar and eatery aims to stay neighborhood-friendly by keeping prices hovering around $8. Just prior to the bar's opening in March, Shapiro took a night off to hit some old and new favorite spots in the neighborhood.

The 'hood: Humboldt Park & Logan Square

8 p.m.: Weegee's, 3659 W. Armitage Ave.

Shuffleboard. Photobooth. Semi-hidden back patio. Vague bathroom smell. A sidecar will take care of that problem. These are some serious drinks.

"My favorite kind of places are tucked away," Shapiro says. "I think comfort is universal—people want to walk into a place and feel at home."

9:15 p.m.: Rosa's Lounge, 3420 W. Armitage Ave.

Christmas balls dangle from the ceiling. Top-notch bathroom graffiti. Even better house blues band. Bring an instrument. They'll let you jam.

"This place just smacks of Logan Square," Shapiro says. "It's real people—completely devoid of pretension. People have no problem being themselves in here right now. And that's all we really want in a good night out, right?"

11:55 p.m.: Whirlaway Lounge, 3224 W. Fullerton Ave.

Don't be surprised if there's a birthday party happening. Bulleit bourbon, rocks for an unheard of $4. Plenty of photos on the wall. Again, $4 Bulleit.

"They're clearly aware of the neighborhood in here," Shapiro says. "Sure it's younger people—this is who is living in the neighborhood now. But I mean, the prices for example—they're not trying to be some kind of destination, they're here for people who want to walk in from a few blocks away."

THE HOST: MELANI DOMINGUES

When Melani Domingues moved to Chicago from New York to open her beer-focused tavern, The Green Lady, she knew she wanted to create a place where people from the neighborhood could come and chat. She slipped out of a recent trivia night a little early to show off two of her favorite nearby haunts.

The 'hood: North Center & Lakeview

9:45 p.m.: Cody's Public House, 1658 W. Barry Ave.

Pretzel rods on the bar. Schlitz chandeliers. Pool and darts. Grill in the beer garden out back is BYO meat.

"I would venture to guess that every single person in here lives in the neighborhood," Domingues says. "It's truly what a public house—a pub—should be. If you come in enough, everyone's going to know you and you can just have a beer and catch up and walk home."

11:30 p.m.: Marie's Riptide Lounge, 1750 W. Armitage Ave.

Old school jukebox—bartender might hand you a few bucks for it if it gets too quiet. One TV. One thing on tap (water). Sign says it opens at 3 p.m., but it opens when they feel like it.

"You know it's a neighborhood bar and not a dive by the decorations," Domingues says, sitting beneath a painted tribute to the bar's namesake and former owner who died last year. "It's just got the feel of a spot that's been here forever."

12:50 a.m.: The Green Lady, 3328 N. Lincoln Ave.

Dog treats at the ready for visitors. Anything you could ask for on tap. Even a smoky bacon beer. BYO eats.

"We had a couple who came into our bar during a snowstorm for their date night," Domingues says as the staff (her two brothers) begin to close down the bar. "They pulled their kid up to the local YMCA on a sled for a babysitting night and then they ordered some food in and had a drink. I want people to feel completely comfortable here."

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