Far from the hip haunts that just claim to be covert, these clandestine underground bars are truly subterranean.
In the summer, Chicagoans want to spend every waking moment in the sunshine, but in the winter we want to cocoon. So while the crowds scramble to get into “secret” speakeasies like Billy Dec’s new bar Underground (56 W Illinois St between Dearborn and Clark Sts), escape the chill in one of the city’s cozy basement bars, which range from diner/dive combos to swanky hideaways. Happy spelunking!
The Pub at Ida Noyes
1212 E 59th St between Woodlawn and Kimbark Aves, 773-702-9737
Hyde Park has only six bars—fortunately, this snug grog shop in the basement of the University of Chicago’s Ida Noyes Hall is one of them. Technically, the tavern is a private club limited to university people, but this policy isn’t really enforced. Pay a dollar membership fee and you’re in. Inside, the oak booths and historic photos of campus life whisper of yesteryear, and there’s an impressive selection of beer and wine, plus a full menu featuring house-made pizza.
135 W Madison St between Clark and LaSalle Sts, 312-236-1111
Since Loop rents are sky-high, several greasy spoons make the most of their footprints with downstairs lounges. Arrive at happy hour (5pm) and you’re greeted with an impressive spread of free appetizers—veggies and dip, tortilla chips, pizza and even cheeseburgers with grilled onions. The ’80s decor includes charmingly ugly paintings of sports scenes. Avoid the additional charge on drinks for table seating and belly up to the bar.
170 W Washington St between LaSalle and Wells Sts, 312-236-1573
This diner/dive is entirely ensconced where the sun don’t shine. Part sterile, smoke-free restaurant and part wood-paneled bar with a nautical feel, this old-school haunt is busiest during the week from 5 to 7pm, when munchies are free (think pizza, hot dogs, chips and a surprisingly kick-ass salsa).
Billy Goat Tavern
(430 N Michigan Ave between Hubbard and Illinois Sts, 312-222-1525)
Despite becoming a tourist destination after the SNL “Cheezborger” skit, the Goat has miraculously remained a top-notch dive. From the Magnificent Mile, a sign directs you downstairs to sketchy Lower Michigan Avenue, where the neon beckons you a few steps farther below ground. A great double cheeseburger, a mug of Billy Goat Dark, cozy confines and plenty of reading material commemorating the colorful founder Billy Sianis and legends like Mike Royko…what’s not to like?
16 W Ontario St between State and Dearborn Sts, 312-640-1000
Get in touch with your inner insurance salesman at this 4am basement piano bar. There’s no cover, but there is a “business casual” dress code and a mandatory $2 coat check. The red-walled room has an old-timey feel with black-and-white posters of Bogie and Hepburn and a rectangular central bar featuring martinis, single-malt Scotch and cognac. Well-scrubbed youths and silver-haired gents gather around the Steinway while the piano man belts out hits like “Sweet Caroline.”
50 E Chicago Ave between Rush St and Michigan Ave, 312-944-5206
Opened during the Eisenhower era, this 4am tavern features brick walls, tables made of beer kegs and Art Nouveau glasswork. Nearly two-dozen beers are well priced—considering you’re half a block from the Mag Mile—so use your extra dough to get your bar game going (pool, table tennis, foosball or Golden Tee) or to feed the jukebox for tunes from a top-notch selection.
Underground Wonder Bar
10 E Walton Pl between State and Rush Sts, 312-266-7761
Owner Lonie Walker, a keyboardist and Janis Joplin sound-alike, holds court at this divey lounge with her Big Bad Ass Company on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Railcar-narrow and candlelit, the space is lined with signed press photos of visiting celebrities and a beaded shrine to Joplin. There are only three beers on tap, and drinks all around are a bit pricey, but the crowd is eclectic and friendly so you could just buddy-up and score some gratis drinks.
1446 N Wells St between Burton Pl and North Ave, 312-787-6103
Formerly the gritty dive Hobo’s, this stylish martini bar has a welcoming vibe. Enter through an alley and descend the stairs to the made-over basement, lined with white rock and sleek black surfaces. Candlelight, driftwood and a trickling fountain give the space a romantic ambience, and recessed ceiling lighting is cleverly used to eliminate any sense of claustrophobia. The men’s room is particularly Euro, with a sliding glass door, stone walls and a sink surrounded by pebbles.
952 W Newport Ave between Sheffield Ave and Halsted St, 773-327-2739
Formerly Lower Links, this bar used to pack ’em in with live-band karaoke. Now you can avoid the amateurs and catch semi-established local rock bands Thursday through Saturday. There’s pool and a good draft selection, including Blue Moon served with an orange slice, plus Jameson whiskey on tap. A stone’s throw from Wrigley, it’s a nice alternative to the Clark Street sports-bar scene.