An Ode to The Charleston, a Neighborhood Bar in Chicago's Bucktown


[Photographs: Roger Kamholz]

Two dogs walk into a bar. They pad right past me and my bar stool, all wagging tongues and smiles, as their ownerless leashes hurry alongside. Late summer's long yawn of twilight still has its hold on the bar's front entrance, picking out every tortured fiber of the scuffed wooden floor—an artifact of ten thousand tides of revelry.

In seconds, the brown one has already tucked in behind the bar. By the time the neighborhood man out for a walk is up the stoop and through the door, his dog has brushed past the sole bartender on duty and startled her. Within an instant, recognition breeds a smile and laughter, followed by a bending shuffle of delicate steps that suggest the explorer below—now hidden from my view behind the long, hulking bar—is getting all tangled up in her legs. Realizing the intrusion, the neighborhood man now breaks stroll in favor of a more purposeful pace and calls out to his loose charges to return. Judging by the non-offense and pleasantries exchanged, it's clear the neighborhood man and dogs are regulars, just like most of the people who stop in on this August Thursday evening. From my bar stool I wonder if this same scene has played out dozens of times before.


A view of the back bar, featuring a strong selection of whiskeys and other spirits. The Charleston is cash-only, and antique register is still in use.

I'm at The Charleston, a corner bar in Chicago's Bucktown neighborhood. The corner bar is by no means unique to Chicago, but I challenge you to name another place boasting more fine purveyors of the form. Here a corner bar can live on quiet residential streets, away from busier places on busier drags, a sort of refuge-within-a-refuge. So why in a city so rich with rock-solid corner bars do I praise the Charleston above all others? So many good small things that add up to something great.

I can still remember my first visit to the Charleston. I have lived in Chicago eight years, and it came sometime in that first few hundred days, when newness awaited down every unfamiliar street. I remember approaching the massive window panes, displaying the bar's warm insides. I remember first seeing the cathedral height of the ceilings, and all that open space. As you walk in, the bar follows you along your left; low tables line the wall to your right. Edison bulbs cast a warm light on the bottles climbing the back bar. Keep walking and you pass large wooden ice chests with shelves full of beer. Toward the back the tables peter out and the room opens up. The tour ends to the left, in a small, dark alcove occupied by a photobooth and cash machine (containing the bar's only screen) and decorated with the former's glistening monochromes.


A view of the Charleston's turntables. Live music and DJ sets are a nightly occurrence. The sweet-smelling lilies are a nice touch, too.

Back to that first night. A bluegrass band was there, maybe six players in all. I wish I could remember their name. They mostly held string instruments; one guy strummed a banjo. The band was set up right in the middle of the place: a half dozen chairs and musicians and their instruments and their instruments' luggage, all amassed in an impassible cluster, causing bottlenecks all night. The odd arrangement suggested they were playing more for each other than the crowd. But as a result the music felt somehow richer and more precious to hear. Like us drinkers were privy to this intimate session among friends. It was terribly inconvenient...and every time I return to the Charleston I hope to see that band there again.


The Charleston has since undergone a renovation that, without sacrificing its spirit, benefits the establishment greatly. The former setup was a warren of mismatched tables and chairs. Now a set of two-tops neatly line a long bench opposite the bar. The crush of a Saturday night crowd still puts you in close company with friends, but it's not as bad as it used to be. Besides, that closeness the Charleston insinuates is one of its best qualities. Perhaps that's why I love the bar most in winter. Innumerable droplets of water cling to those big window panes, caught between a cold desert and breathy oasis, like a pint of just-pulled beer. Light from the street lamps gets trapped in the condensation, and the glass glows late into the night. I like to think of the fog as a mark of lively conversation; the mood it creates only leads to thicker and thicker cloak obscuring the world that stirs outside.


The Charleston's Negroni.

But the Charleston wouldn't be quite so sublime an escape if it weren't for the delicious drinks. To complement a wide-ranging selection of beers, the bar offers a handful of well-executed classic cocktails, each to the tune of nine bucks. When the fuss of the modern-day craft cocktail scene occasionally gets tiresome, the drinks at the Charleston offer a simpler perspective. Take the Negroni, dense and chocolatey as any you'll come across in town, yet served in a humble, straight-sided glass. Made with Death's Door gin, Campari, and Carpano Antica, it's boozy, but not harsh. Bitter and sweet stand boldly eye-to-eye.


The Charleston's Old Fashioned.

Nor can you go wrong with the Old Fashioned, a long pour of Rittenhouse Rye over ice, syrup, bitters, orange peel, and cherry. It's simple and so very smooth.

When friends visit from out of town, I take them to the Charleston. It's the place I naturally want to show off. Before now I've never really examined that impulse. Every bar influences its patrons in some way. It puts a certain English on the trajectory of a night out. The Charleston, with the collective force of countless charming nuances, imparts a slow, relaxed roll. Just like a neighborhood bar should.

About the Author: Roger Kamholz writes about a plethora of topics, including ramen, vegetarian dishes, and—most importantly—cocktails. If you see him at a party, demand that he make your next drink.