Monday, May 2, 2011
Drink, don't drive, at Chicago's train-friendly pubs
by John Greenfield
[These write-ups also appeared in Time Out Chicago magazine, www.timeoutchicago.com]
Recent surveys show that Chicago has the highest gasoline prices in the country at $4.50 per gallon. That calculates to roughly four cents per ounce, the same price as Walgreen's Big Flats beer, $2.99 for a six-pack. Factor in the dangers of drunk driving, and it makes a lot of sense to take transit to taverns and spend the money you save on gas on beer instead. Here are some suggestions for interesting, off-the-beaten-path watering holes that are adjacent or a short walk from CTA, Metra and South Shore Line stations.
CTA O'Hare Line Harlem stop
5241 N. Harlem Ave., Norwood Park
Just south of the Harlem Blue Line station, this black-windowed storefront, formerly Mario’s Café, houses a surprisingly sleek Bulgarian nightspot. Blood-red walls, plush black sofas and silver banquettes, plus abstract sculptural elements suspended from the, create an ambiance worthy of the bar’s name, while stylishly-dressed, dark-eyed young women kibbutz in Bulgarian over throbbing Eurodisco. To sample the cuisine, a mix of Mediterranean and Slavic influences, try a katino meze: a mix of fried chicken, pork and beef tongue with mushrooms, onions, pickles, garlic and feta. Wash it down with a Shumensko beer ($5) or a shot of rakia, a Bulgarian brandy.
And to top it off: A spiky-haired bartender juggles bottles and glasses ala Tom Cruise in “Cocktail.”
Metra's Milwaukee District North Healy stop
4035 W. Fullerton Ave., Kelvyn Park
A tree trimmed into the shape of a beer bottle standing beside this homey tavern is a sign you’ve found dive bar gold. The front room features a serpentine brass bar, while the walls of the lodge-like back room are decorated with antique tools and a series of Abe Lincoln prints. Teachers from nearby Kelvyn Park High stop by on Fridays for Heinekens, Coronas and free barbecue. Owner Warren Johnson is an ex-Marine who played semi-pro football with the Chicago Gladiators in the ‘70s. He shows off a scrapbook of vintage ads for gorgeous former proprietor Trudy De Ring, who performed burlesque under the stage name Radiana in the ‘30s.
And to top it off: The plush barstools are the most comfortable in the city, salvaged from skyboxes during the Soldier Field rehab.
CTA Pink Line Damen stop
2058 W. 22nd Pl., Pilsen
This family-owned tavern has operated since 1951 on a back street of Pilsen, kitty-corner from the twin spires of St. Paul’s Church – current owner Bob Martin attended the adjacent Catholic school. A mix of the neighborhood’s Latinos and Anglos come to this sports pub for cheap burgers, chicken sandwiches and chops plus daily drink specials, like $4 pints of Spaten Octoberfest. The microbrew selection is impressive, including selections by Dogfish Head, Magic Hat and Delirium Tremens, plus Southern Tier’s Mokah stout on tap. Numerous Blackhawks photographs and jerseys autographed by Paul Konerko and Joe Montana, along with free pool, makes this a comfortable hang for local superfans.
And to top it off: A photo on the wall shows an elderly Rock Marciano playfully pummeling a young Muhammad Ali.
CTA Green Line's King Drive stop
641 E. King Dr., Woodlawn
True to its name, this tavern is a relaxing oasis in rough-and-tumble Woodlawn, steps from the King Drive Green Line stop. In business since 1956, the bar features mirrors ringed with plastic roses, multiple portraits of Obama, and a large, old-fashioned lamppost in the middle of the room. Middle-aged and older men in Sox hats and Kangol caps drink bottles of MGD ($2.50) while sharply dressed ladies sip goblets of vodka and cranberry. The jukebox is well stocked with R & B dusties, and when “Honky Tonk” by James Brown comes on, women at one end of the bar start clapping along. There’s karaoke on Thursday nights with a prize for the best singer.
And to top it off: Ex-Chicago Defender gossip columnist Cliff Pierce is a regular.
South Shore Line Hegewisch stop
South Shore Inn
13611 S. Brainard Ave., Hegewisch
This shot-and-a beer joint, located across the street from a South Shore Line stop and catering to commuters and tradesmen, seems pleasantly frozen in time. The grandparents of current owner Dean Ubik bought the building in 1921 and it operated as a speakeasy during Prohibition, when “working girls” rented rooms upstairs. The tavern, last rehabbed in 1949, features sparkly gold vinyl booths and a gorgeous art deco bar with portals filled with knickknacks like antique radios and toy cowboys and Indians. Michelob, Bud Light and Amber Bock are on tap ($1.55/pint), and vintage ads for the train line and a stuffed deer head adorn the walls.
And to top it off: A collection of black-and-white family photos on the wall including pictures of Ubik’s mom’s bowling team and a local bocce league.
13401 S. Baltimore Ave., Hegewisch
This bare-bones dive, in operation since 1978 on Hegewisch’s main drag, probably takes the prize for Chicago’s most irresponsibly named bar. The grinning cartoon rabbit hoisting a brew on the sign threatens to lure children into a lifetime of boozing, although owner Keith Essary says he’s had no complaints. That said, this is a friendly place to sip dollar PBRs or down $5 Vegas bombs (Crown Royal, schnapps, cranberry and Red Bull) with local factory workers and police officers. The jukebox plays a mix of rock, country, punk and hip-hop, and the wood-paneled back room features darts and a Corvette pinball machine.
And to top it off: Mugs Bunny is home to one of the city’s few shuffleboard tables.