Long before Starbucks started claiming the title of the “third place”—a space besides home and work where people gather—the corner bar was already filling that role. The third place, according to Ray Oldenburg (who wrote a book on the subject, called The Great Good Place, published in 1989), fosters community and social interaction by providing a comfortable, welcoming space for both regulars and occasional visitors to congregate. Examples include cafes, barbershops, libraries, bookstores—and, of course, bars.
Chicago has no shortage of neighborhood bars, but the most comfortable and welcoming ones tend to be located off the beaten path, on residential streets. Here there’s little to no chance that a bachelorette party or group of bros on a nightlife crawl will stumble in by accident: away from the main thoroughfares there’s little foot traffic, so odds are good that everyone in the place is there on purpose. There’s a sense of camaraderie, even when the other patrons are strangers.
These bars often feel like relics from the past, holdouts that stay the same as their neighborhoods develop around them. Innertown Pub, for example, is just a couple blocks from the busy intersection of Division and Damen—which would’ve looked very different when the bar opened in 1983 than it does today. Although it’s not clear exactly when the bar acquired its stuffed moose head, indoor stained-glass window, or life-size Elvis statue, they’ve all been in place for a very long time, along with numerous smaller knickknacks that adorn the walls.
The eclectic decor that defines the Innertown Pub is, if not ubiquitous among bars on residential streets, definitely not unusual. If these places are short on anything, it’s not character. I sometimes get the sense that I’ve stumbled into the basement of someone’s eccentric grandma, board games and all. A lot of these places just feel like home. Better, even—they’re sanctuaries away from home. “Hospitality” is a concept common in the bar and restaurant industry, but I’ve never met warmer bartenders than the ones at the out-of-the-way bars I’ve visited. Maybe that’s why people get so upset when they close their doors. Regulars are still mourning the late Club Foot and Beachwood Inn, and in 2015, when Danny’s Tavern announced it was being evicted, the public outcry convinced the landlord of the former two-flat house in Bucktown to change his mind. So the dance parties continue, at least for now.
While these tucked-away gems remain preserved as if in amber, the rest of Chicago’s bar scene is evolving so fast it’s hard to keep up. Going out is serious business these days: at some of the fancier places, you have to make reservations weeks in advance or wait hours for a table to order a cocktail encased in an ice sphere that you break with a slingshot. I love the new bars too; I’m fascinated by obscure cocktail ingredients and weird presentations. But those places aren’t relaxing. They’re not homey. You go there to be wowed, to experience something new. When you want a place as familiar as your own living room—with a menu you can understand without an extended consultation with your server—the neighborhood bar is there. v