Since 2001, I have immersed myself in a serious bit of anthropological research, often aided by my partner The Dilemma. Ignoring the damage this may have done to my body and my wallet, I have forged ahead. What to others may have looked like drunken wastefulness was obvious to the discerning few as hardcore ethnology in the tradition of Margaret Mead and Johann Georg Adam Forster.
And now, in an attempt to have every drop of alcohol that’s ever touched my lips be tax-deductible, I am ready to begin publishing my findings.
Let’s start with the obvious: the best ten bars in the best bar town in America (and I’ve done my research on that too).
Best Whiskey Bar: Longman & Eagle. It may have opened just this year, but Longman & Eagle is already solidly on any decent list of Chicago watering holes. It has a great atmosphere (it reminds me of a roadside tavern in rural New England), nice bartenders, and good music. It has an extensive whiskey list, but you can still get a shot of Maker’s and a PBR for $6. They have foodie pub fare like Buffalo Frogs Legs and Grilled Pork Cheek. And they’re opening an inn upstairs… how cool is that?
Honorable Mention: Delilah’s.
Best Rock Bar: The Empty Bottle. Dick-sucking alert: this place is owned by the same people as Longman & Eagle. But what can I say… they know their shit. The shows and beers there are cheap, it’s out-of-the-way enough to draw a crowd that actually cares about the music, it’s tiny with good sound, and most decent bands have their first Chicago show there. Plus it inspired a line in an Old ’97s song.
Honorable Mention: Cole’s.
Best Beer Bar: The Map Room: Bucktown may have gotten super-douchy in the 20 years since this bar opened, but The Map Room has pretty much stayed the same (except for the insanely large crowds). It’s always been pretentious, but in a beer connoisseur kind of way. Feels like a cool traveller’s cafe should.
Honorable Mention: The Hopleaf.
Best Outdoor Bar: Big Star. Another bar that opened this year, yet still cracks the list… needless to say, the recession hasn’t come to the Chicago bar industry yet. The outdoor space has always been great… The now-deceased Pontiac turned this former garage into the best place to sit with beers in the summer. Big Star also features tacos by Paul Kahan… the pork-belly is awesome. It’s in Wicker Park, so draws its fair share of assholes… needless to say, it also attracts the hot girls that assholes attract.
Honorable Mention: Kirkwood Bar & Grill.
Best Sports Bar: Small Bar – Division. The other two Small Bars are just OK, but the one on Division is that rare sports bar where you aren’t stuck in a place with total idiots eating bad food. Their sport of choice is soccer, but the TV situation can be used for football or whatever. And it’s awesome during the World Cup.
Honorable Mention: The Globe Pub.
Best Jazz Bar: The Green Mill. Not only has the movie The Dilemma offended gays and ruined my partner’s nom de plume, but it is trying to ruin the Green Mill… the trailer features a horrible scene of Kevin James dancing there. But this classic made it through Prohibition, so it will probably withstand even this. The space has been open since the turn-of-the-century, and was once owned by a colleague of Capone’s. You’ll have to pay a cover, but most of the performers are pretty solid, and it does have a good dance floor… Kimberly Gordon is a particularly impressive singer.
Honorable Mention (Blues): Kingston Mines
Best Dive Bar: Old Town Ale House (no real dive bar would have a website). As my chosen mileau, I could write a whole Top Ten of this section (and probably will someday). But the Old Town Ale House has everything you need: a great jukebox (of jazz classics), a limited selection of cheap shots, some decent beer, and a sense of history. It’s across from Second City, and has long been a favorite of the company. Plus, you can buy a poster of a naked Sarah Palin or Blago if you so desire.
Honorable Mention: Carol’s Pub.
Best Tourist Bar: The Billy Goat – Michigan Ave.. As with most major cities, downtown in Chicago pretty much sucks, at least food and drink-wise. However, if you’re a tourist, you’re going to spend time down there seeing the sights. I won’t speak for the rest of their branches, but the original Billy Goat is still pretty solid. It’s under the elevated part of Michigan Ave., and you can get a cold mug of house beer and sit on the same stools newspaper men like Mike Royko used to sit on when newspapers existed. The “Cheez-burger, Cheez-burger” hype is a bit annoying, but they’re still pretty tasty.
Honorable Mention: 17 West at The Berghoff
Best College Bar: The Woodlawn Tap (Jimmy’s). Chicago has its fair number of colleges… University of Chicago is definitely the strangest. The one bar near the campus is a place where the students and professors go on the rare occasions they’re not reading poetry or balancing equations. Like any good academic, it’s both shabby and pretentious at the same time. And it’s the rare bar where you’ll hear more conversations about Foucault than football.
Honorable Mention: Kelly’s Pub.
Best Irish Bar: The Grafton. The best bar in one of the quaintest neighborhoods in Chicago, Lincoln Square. It has a nice Irish pub feel, up there with dark and divey as the most comforting vibe on a cold winter day. There’s even a fireplace and comfy chairs in the back.
Honorable Mention: Celtic Crossings.