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Drinking Guide to Chicago
Jill Jaracz

Photo: Jill Jaracz
A Short History
Before Prohibition, if you wanted to go out for a drink, you went to a saloon. The word “saloon” derived from the “sample rooms” that grocers and other liquor sellers had to help sell their products. With the influx of immigrants from drinking cultures such as Germany, the Czech Republic, and Ireland, more liquor was produced locally. At its peak, Chicago was home to over 60 breweries and four distilleries. To try to beat the competition, the breweries opened storefronts—mostly located on street corners—that they furnished and rented out to saloonkeepers. A few examples of this type of saloon remain in Chicago, one of which is Schubas, a former Schiltz outpost in Lakeview.

Once Prohibition hit, the breweries and distilleries closed up and speakeasies thrived. After the 21st Amendment was repealed, bars reopened, but instead of being known as saloons, they started being called “cocktail lounges” or “taverns.” Neighborhood corner taverns like Cody’s in Lakeview flourished and became havens for blue-collar workers looking for a quiet and cool place to relax after a long day at the factory.

Not everyone appreciates a good bar though. The Temperance movement in Chicago was alive and well long before Prohibition, and it continues to this day with a law called “local option” that allows individual precincts to vote themselves dry, which means that even grocery stores in a dry precinct cannot sell liquor. Moratoriums on liquor licenses in certain precincts mean that the existing bars and liquor stores can stay, but no new ones can be opened. Before it can be declared dry, the local option has to show up as a referendum on the ballot in city elections. Luckily, local option runs both ways, and dry precincts can be voted wet.

Photo: Jill Jaracz
When Can I Drink?
The standard liquor license allows places that serve alcohol to be open from 7 am until 2 am Monday through Saturday, and 11 am until 3 am on Sunday. A bar with a Late-Hour License can stay open until 4 am Monday through Saturday and 5 am on Sunday. Need to get some beer before the big game on Sunday? You’ll have to wait until 11 am to buy alcohol at a store, but if you need something before that, head to a restaurant, where you can start drinking at 10 am.

The Lingo:

After Hours
This is a bar with a Late-Hour License, also called a “4 am” or a “5 am” bar or club because of when it closes. Clubs along Rush Street like Le Passage lure trendsetters to their dance floors. The one-block strip of bars along Division Street between Dearborn and State is chock-full of legendary after hours bars like Butch McGuire’s, The Lodge, The Original Mother’s, Leg Room, and Bootleggers. The Weed Street District also parties until dawn. Get your drink on at Joe’s and dance the night away at Zentra or Crobar.

Photo: Jill Jaracz
Beer Gardens
Let’s face it, one of the best ways to relax in Chicago during the summer is to enjoy a drink in one of the many outdoor patios and beer gardens throughout the city. Think the bartenders throw you back indoors too early? Well, the city requires that all outdoor patios close by 11 pm Sunday through Thursday, and midnight on Friday and Saturday, even if the bar is an after hours place. And because the city wants bars to be good neighbors, no music is allowed on outdoor patios. Sometimes bars will put up tents or have outdoor heaters so that the garden can be used in winter, but in the middle of January, you won’t find anyone who wants to brave the cold! Great beer gardens include Sheffield’s and Fizz Bar & Grill, both in Lakeview.

Bottle Service
Found at upscale clubs, bottle service allows you to get a table and order a full bottle of alcohol—often at greatly inflated prices. Bottle service was illegal because the state felt that it encouraged over-consumption, but establishments such as Enclave in River North and Jet Vodka Lounge in the Weed Street District cried foul, claiming that tables with bottle service also had personal wait staff who could better monitor consumption than a bar with multiple bartenders could. Recently the state legislature passed a law allowing it. The law is awaiting the governor’s signature or veto, or if he chooses not to sign it, it will automatically become law in March 2007.

Traditionally, a brewpub serves food and makes its own beer, like Piece in Bucktown or the Chicago outlet of Rock Bottom Brewery in River North. However, bar owners who are really into beer may also be labeled brewpubs. The Map Room in Bucktown, Hopleaf in Andersonville, and The Beer Bistro in the West Loop all fall under this category.

Short for Bring Your Own Bottle, you’ll see this sign in about 250 restaurants throughout the city that either don’t have liquor licenses or can’t get them due to a local option referendum. You bring a bottle of wine, beer, or hard liquor to drink with your meal, and the restaurant provides glasses, sometimes charging you a “corkage fee” for the privilege. Next time you have brunch at Orange, bring some champagne to mix with their fresh-squeezed orange juice.

Photo: Jill Jaracz
Cerveza Fria
“Cold Beer” in Spanish; often found on Old Style signs.

Goose Island
Local microbrew manufactured in the Goose Island industrial area on the Near North Side. Its award-winning beer can be found all over the Midwest and in its two brewpubs in Lincoln Park and Wrigleyville.

Old Style
A lager beer from Wisconsin, Old Style has the longest-running sports sponsorship, being the beer of the Cubs since 1950. Old Style signage also pops up throughout the city and bars with Old Style signs out front don’t always post the name of the bar—you know the bar is there solely by the Old Style sign. A place with an Old Style sign could be a dive bar, or it could be a throwback to the days where corner taverns were the symbols of communities.

Happy Hour
Happy Hours don’t technically exist in Illinois. Oh, you’ll hear people talk about going to Happy Hour, but that mostly means grabbing a drink after work, and maybe the bar you go to has some free food. In many other cities, Happy Hour means 2-for-1 drink specials or special pricing on drinks for a set amount of time. In Illinois drink prices have to remain constant for the entire day, like $5 pitchers of beer on Fridays, not $5 pitchers from 5-7 pm. Also, there’s no pricing favoritism for any group of people, which means, sorry ladies, but there can’t be any “Ladies drink for $1!” specials either. One other part of the Happy Hour Law states that bars can’t have drinking games or games where the prize is alcohol. Why the restrictions? The state just wants to ensure that nobody gets sloshed due to specials that may encourage you to drink more than you should.

Photo: Jill Jaracz
Packaged Goods
This is basically a liquor store with a bar in it. It’s called “packaged goods” because liquor sold for consumption off-premises needs to be put in a bag, or, well, packaged. There aren’t many of these left in the city, but Ola’s in the Ukrainian Village is one place where you walk into a long narrow room with a bar dividing it in half. You can belly up to the bar for a cheap draft beer, or you can grab some beer from the cooler or ask to buy a bottle of hard liquor that you can take to go. Packaged, of course.

Sidewalk Café
Don’t confuse a sidewalk café with a beer garden. A beer garden is located in an outdoor space adjacent to, within, or behind an establishment. A sidewalk café is located in front of a restaurant or a bar that serves food and can be open from April 1 to November 1. Beer garden operating hours apply, and you usually have to order food to be allowed to sit in the café. Sidewalk cafés pop up like mad in the summer, and they’re often packed with Chicagoans who aren’t used to seeing the sun.

Smoking Ban
The smoking ban will go completely into effect July 1, 2008. Until then, you can smoke in a restaurant with a bar, if you’re within 15 feet of the bar itself. You can also smoke in taverns that post “smoking allowed” signs. Hookah bars and tobacco lounges, such as Lakeview’s A La Turka and Marshall McGearty in Bucktown won’t need to worry about this law as long as their sales come primarily selling tobacco products. Marshall McGearty also has an innovative air filtration system that pumps in fresh air every eight minutes, but under the Clean Indoor Air Ordinance, the city claims that no technology exists to filter the air enough to meet the standards of the ordinance.

Zimne Piwo
Polish for “cold beer.” After Warsaw, Chicago has the largest Polish population in the world, with about a quarter of the white population claiming Polish ancestry. Polish bars are often marked with Old Style signs that read “zimne piwo” underneath.

When it comes to booze in the city, now you know how Chicago works, and you can be the ultimate guide. Cheers!

Listings associated with this Feature:

Butch McGuire's Ola's Liquor
Goose Island Brewery Map Room

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