Chicago is a fantastic city for dive bars. It's so great that my initial list of contenders for the city's best consisted of 42 bars, and I'm positive that I could have added more places if I asked more people. Many of the city's divey neighborhood bars have been around—and beloved—for decades.
What is a dive bar, by definition? While I love places to get great cocktails, I also love places where I can only get PBR and where I won't even venture into the bathroom unless it's a dire emergency. The latter are dives. Dives also tend to be populated by old men, and the more old men in an establishment, the better things are going to be. A few more rules: if the bar even has a website, it should look like it was made in 1995. Dives have to be cheap—charging $6 for a can of cheap beer is putting on airs. There should be nothing remotely pretentious about a dive bar, and if I walk in wearing a sundress and ballet flats, I should feel overdressed.
A great dive should have its own personality—you should be able to immediately distinguish one wood-paneled interior from another. In the case of Rose's Lounge, it's a bar that makes you feel like you're drinking in your grandmother's basement. At Club Foot, it's the '80s and '90s toys lining the walls. At Carol's, it's the country music and the mélange of patrons, some cowboy-hatted seriously, some ironically.
With so many to choose from, assembling a list of every essential Chicago dive bar would be more than even the eagerest drinker could manage. So we've narrowed it down to 8 great Chicago dive bars we've enjoyed recently, and plan to return to soon.
If you've ever sat around drinking in your grandmother's musty basement, chances are it felt something like Rose's Lounge. Frosted mugs to hold $2 pours of Old Style come out of a kitchen-sized fridge behind the bar, there are mismatched couches, a discarded dining room table set, Christmas lights, figurines, alarm clocks, and a Blockbuster video gumball machine. Despite the overload of décor to take in, it's the people watching the steals the show. There are quirky older drinkers from the neighborhood, wayward DePaul students, and low-key types who need a break from typical Lincoln Park bars. The dusty bottles behind the bar seem to have been there for decades, so everyone drinks the frosty mugs of Old Style. As an added bonus, bartenders, who may or may not be your grandmother's age, will pass out dollars for the jukebox.
Rose's Lounge: 2656 North Lincoln Avenue, Chicago, IL 60614 (map) 773-327-4000
St. Pauli Club
When we arrived at St. Pauli Club at 11 p.m., the older woman working there had to come unlock the door and let us in. And the bar was empty. While only three more people joined us before we left at 2 a.m., and we were the youngest people there by about 30 years, the oak-wood bar somehow felt completely convivial. The bar has a jukebox with German music, a pool table, and episodes of Matlock on TV—there's a lot to keep you entertained until 4 a.m., when the bar closes. The draft selection rotates, but we had steins of Spaten, plus a whiskey shot the bartender bought us.
St. Pauli Club: 5109 North Lincoln Avenue, Chicago, IL 60625 (map) 773-769-1922
George's Cocktail Lounge
Chicago has hybrid bars and liquor stores, where you can drink alongside cases of Bud Light and sip your drink while the bartender sells people to-go beverages. George's is one such place. Located in the South Loop, it's dead until about 11 p.m., and nuts starting around 2 a.m. Open until 4 a.m. during the week, and 5 a.m. on weekends, George's is located across the street from Buddy Guy's Legends, and draws industry folks after their own bars close. It also draws tourists, since hotels send visitors looking for a downtown dive here, as there are few other nearby options. Despite the name of the establishment, everyone drinks the Bud or Bud Light on draft or orders a bottled beer. Or you could get a whiskey and Coke, or take a bottle of whiskey home with you.
George's Cocktail Lounge: 646 South Wabash Avenue, Chicago, IL 60605 (map) 312-427-3964
Many Chicago dive bars open in the morning even before offices, so third shifters can unwind before going home. So it seemed necessary to visit one bar early in the morning to explore the full range of dive bar experiences. I found myself at Rossi's Liquors at 8:24 a.m. on a recent Tuesday, with a PBR in front of me, and I was not the only one. I met someone who had just gotten off work and was winding down with a beer and someone else having a drink alongside coffee before they went to work. The guy clearing out the ATM was there too. Rossi's inexplicably has Revolution beer on tap, but the seats feel like they're going to collapse beneath you, the ceiling on top of you, and most people just drink bottles of PBR. I couldn't manage a whole PBR that early and wound up wandering to Xoco, Rick Bayless' torta restaurant, for a chorizo-egg sandwich. That's one upside to early morning drinking—morning breakfast drunk food beats drunk pizza any day.
Rossi's Liquors: 412 North State Street, Chicago, IL 60654 (map) 312-644-5775
Imagine your house if you never threw out a single toy from your childhood. That's what Club Foot is like. Walls are lined with action figures and dolls, and there are games to play, and beer to drink. There's a full lineup of liquor, but PBRs are $2 each weeknight, so that's what everyone drinks. The Ukrainian Village spot has been a bar since the 1880s, and the owner told me that it was probably a speakeasy during Prohibition. While the bar is dark, and DJs are spinning, Club Foot still manages to feel like your childhood bedroom.
Club Foot: 1824 West Augusta Boulevard, Chicago, IL 60622 (map) 773-489-0379
The L&L Tavern is notorious for its serial killer connections—apparently John Wayne Gacy and Jeffrey Dahmer were both regularly in attendance at the Lakeview dive. These days, you'll find a mix of neighborhood residents, bands playing nearby, and people who wandered down after a Cubs game. Vintage beer signs line the walls, and the tables are so wobbly, you should probably just sit at the bar. PBRs are $2.50, and there's a surprisingly good selection of Irish whiskeys, but you won't find anything on draft. The closest dive on the list to my house, the L&L is my go-to bar.
L&L Tavern: 3207 North Clark Street, Chicago, Illinois 60657 (map) 773-528-1303
The Logan Square bar is located just across the street from Fireside Bowl, so hitting the two in one night is a solid plan. Bob Inn has pool tables and cheap beer and 20-something Logan Square kids mingling with older blue-collar types. It really feels like the perfect neighborhood bar, where anyone would feel comfortable stopping for a drink. It doesn't have the grimy, falling-apart element that the other bars on this list have, but it's dark, cheap, and people only drink PBR or whiskey. Order those and call it a day.
Bob Inn: 2609 W. Fullerton Avenue, Chicago, Illinois 60647 (map
We may have saved the best for last: this Uptown country bar features a house band on the weekends, cheap drinks and one of the most fascinating groups of people I've ever seen. There were girls sporting ironic-colorful cowboy hats sitting next to people seriously wearing cowboy hats. There were truck drivers and people in pearls. The crowd may be diverse, but everyone hits the dance floor and embraces the live music, grimy bar tops and unstable stools. While there is food available, I didn't see a single person order anything—instead, head to the cheap burrito spot next door to soak up the booze.
Carol's Pub: 4659 North Clark Street, Chicago, IL 60640 (map) 773-334-2402
Where's your favorite Chicago dive bar? Add to the list in the comments below!
About the Author: Amy Cavanaugh writes about food, drink, and travel from her home base of Chicago.