NFT Chicago Nightlife

Chicago / Nightlife

Chicago is a city of neighborhoods, and as such, we are a city of great little neighborhood taverns. These are the places where the beer you drink is on tap, the bartender throws a basket of pretzels in front of you when you grab your stool, and you can find the men and women who fill the pages of Studs Terkel's beloved Working, stealing precious time between the bossman and the kids. And then there's the jukebox. The best ones feature all your favorite bar songs, from Hank Williams to The Cars, Blondie to Sly and the Family Stone, and "My Way" sung in Polish or Korean just for the hell of it.

Although you'll find a low-key feel at many bars, Chicago has built a strong reputation as a nightlife capital. With bass-pumping dance clubs, warm weather rooftop bars and VIP lounges, the city keeps the rapt attention of every club crazy scenester.

No matter your interest, there's always something going on in the city. To help you keep on top of it all, check out listings in The Reader, Time Out Chicago, and New City. Websites like Gapers Block ( list events and specials.

Dive Bars
Rub shoulders with the characters from a Nelson Algren story at any of the following joints: In Old Town, the Old Town Ale House (Map 31) was once voted best dive bar in the country by someone-mumblemumble-we-forget-who. In Edgewater, Ollie's Lounge (Map 37) has long drawn a friendly crowd of boozy locals. Other dives such as Ola's Liquor (Map 21) can be identified by the mere presence of the "Old Style" bar sign out front.

Arty Crowd
Young urban arty types have carved out their kitsch-embracing niches at Ukrainian Village and Wicker Park spots such as Gold Star Bar (Map 21), Inner Town Pub (Map 21), and Rainbo Club (Map 21), while their Pilsen brethren drink their PBR at Maria's (Map 12). On the west side, The California Clipper (West Chicago) appeals to today's rat pack wannabes, and on the north side, get drunk with happy hipsters and local punters at Village Tap (Map 42), The Long Room (Map 40), and Edgewater Lounge (Map 37).

Live Music
Some of Chicago's best live music venues are also neighborhood spots. The legendary Checkerboard Lounge (Map 19) is making a comeback in Hyde Park. Katerina's (Map 39), on an unassuming stretch of Irving Park in North Center, features regular live gypsy music along with local acts. In West Town, the Empty Bottle (Map 21) is the place to catch touring indie bands. Farther west, Rosa's Lounge (Northwest Chicago) is a friendly venue for live blues. Catch live jazz any night of the week at Uptown's Green Mill (Map 40). On the northwest side, The Abbey (Northwest) features everything from alternative rock acts like The Breeders and Peaches, to singer-songwriter showcases and burlesque. If you want to put some twang in your thang, alt-country acts from the Bloodshot Records label regularly perform at Bucktown's Hideout (Map 29). See indie bands and comics without the cover at Cole's (Map 27). Be seen amongst the indie crowd at Thalia Hall (Map 26).

Shake a Tailfeather
In Chicago, even the best place to get your groove on is often the one right around the corner. Despite the concentration of huge, dazzling and super expensive high-concept nightclubs in River North and River West, (which are typically the domains of tourists and suburbanites), many local folk prefer smaller, friendlier, and cheaper local options to catch Saturday (or Monday, or Thursday) night fever. In Lincoln Park, Neo (Map 30) attracts children of the Eighties and their wannabes with retro dance tunes ranging from goth to new wave. Legendary gay bar Berlin (Map 43), in Lakeview, draws a pansexual crowd for their ever-rotating array of theme nights. Smart Bar (Map 43), in the basement of the rock club Metro (Map 43), spins dance music with an edge, and Danny's (Map 28) hosts the late night dance party so your living room doesn't have to.

What's Your Poison?
Whether you are a wino, a beer swiller, a whiskey sipper or a tequila shooter, have we got a bar for you.

Craft brews are quickly finding their way into the taps every new bar in town, but at Map Room (Map 28), Fountainhead (Map 39) and Sheffield's (Map 43) be prepared to read full-on booklets listing all their brews before you order. At Quenchers (Map 28) you can drink your way around the world. If it's Belgians you crave, try getting a seat at Andersonville's Hopleaf (Map 40).

In the last couple of years, the cocktail has become king in Chicago, with many noted mixologists shaking up fresh ingredients to make some of the best stuff you've ever tasted. Celebrity chef Grant Achatz's The Aviary (Map 24) has upped the game in the cocktail scene the way his Alinea redefined the culinary world. The Violet Hour (Map 21) is designed as a speakeasy (look for the yellow light outside) with some of the best mixes in the city. For those who appreciate a good cocktail but are on a budget, check out The Whistler (Map 27), whose short list of classic cocktails won't sap your wallet.

Straight Up
If it's something stronger that you crave, Delilah's (Map 29) serves a world-class collection of whiskey to an amiable crowd of aging hipsters and once-were punks. Marty's (Map 37) is a fine place to be shaken and not stirred. Gin drinkers will find an extensive collection at Scofflaw (Map 27). The tropical rum concoctions at downtown tiki bar Three Dots and a Dash (Map 2) are so strong that after a few you'll swear you can hear the waves crashing along the coast.

Irish Pubs
Yes, Chicago is full of Irish--and "Irish"--pubs. Some are pretty damn authentic though, so if you're on the north side and it's a good Shepherd's Pie or football match you're craving along with your pint, seek out The Irish Oak (Map 43), Chief O'Neill's (Map 41), or The Globe Pub (Map 39). On the South Side, well, you can't even contemplate Irish drinking culture in the city without a tip o' the hat to the strip of Western Avenue in Beverly that is home to the annual South Side St. Patrick's Day Parade. Keegan's Pub (Southwest), Cork & Kerry (Southwest), and Mrs. O'Leary's Dubliner (Southwest) are all loaded with craic. Every Friday and Saturday Night, the Irish-American Heritage Center (Northwest) hosts the Fifth Province Pub (Northwest), an authentic Irish Pub, featuring Irish beer, Irish food, and Irish entertainment.

On-Site Sipping
A recent crop of breweries and distilleries are giving boozers a chance to taste test right at the source. Local craft favorites Revolution (Map 41) and Half Acre (Map 39) offer tours of their facilities, and sampling is encouraged. City Winery (Map 24) sources grapes from all over the world to produce wines you can sip throughout their bar, restaurant and concert facilities. And as whiskey continues its hold on the local hipster population, Koval Distillery (Map 39) offers classes, tours and plenty of bottled varieties to take home.

On Our Radar:

Posted By:  Joseph Hernandez
Photo:  Joseph Hernandez

Tuman's Tap & Grill
Step beyond the swinging saloon style doors of unassuming Tumans and you'll be in a standard neighborhood bar.  On its eastern wall, you'll see a relic of Tumans past: the old sign from when it was known as Tumans Alcohol Abuse Center. Grab a seat wherever; it's never so busy that a table will be unavailable. During favorable weather, Tumans' patio is some of the best outdoor seating around: an empty lot across Leavitt provides an unobstructed chance to catch some rays while enjoying some classically simple bar food. Don't roll your eyes: this is not "gastropub re-imagined comfort food," whereupon you are suddenly without a savings account. No, this stuff is just good, honest grub. The short-rib sandwich is a particular favorite, with grilled, buttery toast, shredded short-rib, caramelized onions and spring greens. The meatloaf seems to be cut from that mythic meatloaf that miraculously reminds everyone of their mother's or grandmother's. Lying somewhere on the edge between fresh and day-old (frankly, the only way to enjoy meatloaf) and sandwiched between two warm pieces of toasted focaccia and standard fixins', it's the sandwich equivalent of a culinary bear hug. And ultimately, that's what Tumans is: a place to enjoy friends, good food, and a welcoming atmosphere.

Posted By:  Joseph Hernandez
Photo:  Joseph Hernandez

Gallery Cabaret
So a dinosaur and a half-naked Uncle Sam walk into a bar... Yeah, it sounds like the beginning to an incredibly lame joke but it actually happened on a recent visit to Gallery Caberet, which is anything but lame (though it can be a joke). Gallery Cabaret is the quintessential neighborhood watering hole: live entertainment every night, amazing drink specials, and an interesting cast of regulars with whom to shoot the breeze keep locals coming back. On any given night, expect the type of banter heretofore experienced on Seinfeld or Curb Your Enthusiasm. "Colorful" doesn't even begin to describe the crowd, which ranges for young, greasy post-punk and hipster kids to the hippies who've frequented the bar since its opening in 1990. On the same trip with the dinosaur and Uncle Sam, there was a raucous soundtrack of a middle-aged punk band on stage and Pitchfork Music Festival attendees attempting to recover from sunstroke with the well-advertised Leinenkugel pitchers (a bank-breaking $6). For those looking to stretch a dollar, make it a point to come by on Sundays: there's a free weekly buffet for paying customers.

Posted By:  Rob Tallia
Photo:  Rob Tallia

Billy Goat Tavern
We at NFT were glad to have watched the Blackhawks win the Stanley Cup not from the safety of our own homes, or from the utter drunken revelry of a Blackhawks bar, but instead from the hallowed halls of the Billy Goat Tavern. And yes, all the patrons did indeed go properly apeshit, and we then had the bonus of being right on Michigan Avenue afterwards for the impromptu car-honking celebration. But more importantly: this author downed two doubles in the space of about 15 minutes, because they were/are/will always be so FRIGGIN' GOOD. Who needs french fries? Just more room for another burger from one of the 8 places profiled on the great documentary Hamburger America (now also a book, a TV show, and a South American Cult). And with some dark beer to wash it down, life was good--and will be again, the next time I'm back at the Billy Goat.

Posted By:  Brendan Keating
Photo:  Brendan Keating

In Fine Spirits Wine Lounge
Feeling a little weary of beer? Interested in experimenting with cocktails? Are you vine-curious? Andersonville's In Fine Spirits will slake your thirst for something new. This slightly upscale lounge specializes in unique but affordable wines, classic cocktails, and yes, even a few microbrews (though mostly bottles). The cocktail menu reads like a Smithsonian of spirits: Moscow Mule, Sazerac, Sidecar, Highball, and of course, Old Fashioned. The 21st century twist is that these cocktails are crafted with spirits so fine and local you've probably never heard of them, but after a taste, you'll never forget them. The small-plate offerings are no less innovative. Start your meal with a pickled tea egg and end it with a pork sandwich with whiskey on the side. Stuffed dates, toasted almonds, and curated cheeses taste like heaven alongside your Argentinean malbec. The friendly service and relaxed atmosphere also complement the food and drinks nicely, as does the cute patio in back. Of course, quality like this doesn't come cheap, and though you don't have to be as rich as a shiraz to afford it, your wallet better not be as light as a chardonnay, either.

Posted By:  Rob Tallia
Photo:  Norman Ibarra

Yup--that's how long we've been publishing a Chicago guide--eight years. And to celebrate, we're having a book release party for the 2010 edition of the Not For Tourists Guide to Chicago at our favorite bar in Chicago, Sheffield's. And with the Goose Island 312 Urban Wheat Ale flowing, life should be more than grand on Wednesday, April 28--at least between the hours of 7pm-10pm at Sheffield's. So come and grab a free copy of the city's foremost "urban" guide, accompany it with one of Chicago's best "urban" ales, at the NFT writers' favorite "urban" bar! PS: If you're into that social networky Facebook thingy, sign up here and let us know you're coming.

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NFT Top Picks:
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Big Chicks
Chief O'Neill's
Club Foot
Empty Bottle
Fireside Restaurant & Lounge
Gold Star Bar
Green Mill
Hungry Brain
Kuma's Corner
Lee's Unleaded Blues
Marty's Martini Bar
Montrose Saloon
Moody's Pub
Rainbo Club
Rooster's Palace
Rosa's Lounge
Simon's Tavern
The Abbey
The Grafton
Village Tap