Answers from Our Experts (4)
Chicago's best nightlife might appear to suffer from an identity crisis. On one hand, you have the Midwest's famous no-nonsense, pragmatic attitude, which manifests itself in dive bars and come-as-you-are live-music hubs. On the other hand, you have an irrepressible appetite for drinking and dancing the night away. (It's not for nothing that house music was born here.) You could go from lounging with the hip-and-hot at J Bar to dancing at Le Passage to sipping the city's best-mixed cocktails at The Violet Hour, all in one night.
If you're looking for that beloved local institution known as the dive bar, you won't have to look far. These holes-in-the-wall are usually tucked into any residential neighborhood, and many sport generic Old Style beer signs out front and the words "Zimne Piwo" or "Cerveza Fria" (cold beer in Polish and Spanish, respectively). Here, beer is cheap and plentiful, and the crowd varies from blue-collar regulars to hipsters, all seeking a low-key spot to drink and congregate with friends. Some, such as Empty Bottle and The Hideout have turned into destinations for music aficionados. By and large, many remain no-frills: perfect for when all you need is a cold one and no pretense.
If it's summer, you don't want to be holed up — and for that, Chicago teems with beer gardens and bars with patios from which you can tipple and people-watch under the sun to your heart's content. Popular spots include Sheffield's and Nick's Beergarden. If you simply walk around neighborhoods like Lakeview or Wicker Park, you'll practically trip over an alfresco patio down any street.
The great thing about Chicago nightlife is that there's something for everyone, whether you're in the mood for a sleek lounge, a college bar or a hipster hangout. Sprinkling in a bit of everything, here are some of my top picks:
Hubbard Street is a downtown stretch that is the epitome of where you'll want to "see and be seen." While you may wait in line for an hour to gain entrance into the area's many lounges and bars, spots such as Studio Paris, Epic, Social 25 and Mercer 113 won't disappoint when it comes to people-waching. Expect fabulously-clad crowds sipping pricey cocktails and DJs spinning tunes into the wee hours of the morning.
Head to Lincoln Park, home to DePaul University, to find your resident college bars. Joints such as John Barleycorn, Glascott's and Zella are frequented by the younger set, but a fun time nonetheless.
For a less mainstream night, try Wicker Park or Bucktown. The Bedford is a relatively-new spot, having been converted into a restaurant and bar from an old bank. And yes, the bank vault is still very-much in tact. Order one of the popular punch bowls — my personal favorite is La Paloma Punch.
Chicago is easily accessible by taxicab but there are a few areas with dozens of bars that allow you flexibility. One of these areas is Hubbard Street. Four blocks of bars line Hubbard Street, each offering excellent cocktails and often an exciting dance floor, as well. Guests looking for a trendy scene can enjoy a traditional cocktail at Hubbard Inn or on Epic’s rooftop. Bar goers looking for perhaps a more laidback vibe can enjoy craft beer and football games at Theory Sports Bar. Anything and everything can be found along this block.
Another similar stretch is in the Bucktown-Wicker Park neighborhood. A funky area with a mixed vibe of trendy and retro, this part of town is literally one bar next to another. If you are unsure of where to head in the city or what you are in the mood for, this is a wonderful jumping-off point for a great night out.
Chicago is a big enough city that there are multiple neighborhoods with great nightlife. It all depends on what you’re in the mood for, how much you’re willing to spend, and how late you want to stay out.
If you’re going all out, River North is the city’s best club-centric destination. Home to popular bottle-service destinations such as Studio Paris, this is the it neighborhood to see and be seen. Countless bars and lounges ring this neighborhood that comes to life at night, and many stay open until 2 a.m. on weekdays, and 3 a.m. Saturdays.
Personally, I’d much rather bar-hop in Wicker Park, Chicago’s one-time artists’ neighborhood that’s now home to some of the best cocktails and bar-bites in town. There’s always a good time to be had at rowdy Big Star, located in the heart of this hip neighborhood, and just across the street is The Violet Hour, a demure, hushed haven for excellent drinks in the dark.
Sports fans usually gravitate toward Wrigleyville to celebrate post-game at destinations such as John Barleycorn and the Cubby Bear. Fair warning: If you’re a White Sox fan, you’re bound to be outnumbered in this party zone in the shadow of Wrigley Field.