After four years of living in Chicago’s bustling downtown, I was ready to never walk on Michigan Avenue, eat deep-dish pizza, or look at the ever-confusing Bean again. I moved a 20 minute car ride west to Ukrainian Village, an out-of-the-way sort of neighborhood that keeps people asking, “Wait, am I in Ukrainian Village right now?” Though technically only 31 city blocks in size, Ukrainian Village has become a popular location that envelopes its surrounding neighborhood’s identities into a super-hood. The quiet streets, architecture and set-up have kept me feeling closer to small town Europe than to big city America. My neighborhood has attracted the attention of young families, young professionals and hipsters alike, creating a melting pot of great food and cool bars. There are over 40 restaurants and 20 bars in this small area, ranging from hole-in-the-wall taco joints to sports bars to fine dining and always a new place or two tucked away waiting to be discovered.
One such discovery came for me shortly after my arrival to the Village. I’d done the sports bar thing, where I begrudgingly sacrificed my Michigan roots to occasionally cheer for the Cubs. I’d done the cocktail lounge scene, where I patiently listened to a mixologist explain complicated beverages. Once or twice I’d even accidently stumbled into a college bar, where I covered my ears and drank my Bud Light. Therefore, my interest piqued the first night that I was invited to a dive bar — a low-lit, low-cost and high-character neighborhood specialty. There are six dives within six blocks of my apartment. Make it seven blocks and the number of these hidden treasures jumps to nine. Dives represent about a third of my neighborhood bars and they are fantastic.
It was good that I was invited to the first dive I visited, because I likely would have never gone in otherwise. I walked through the neighborhood — completely confused about where I was about to end up — when the warmth of a glowing “Rainbo” sign came out of nowhere to simultaneously greet and terrify me. I entered through the doors, which were sporting a large cash only message, into a room barely decorated with sporadic photos of Chicago, a photo booth and three arcade games. My friend emerged from the sea of hipsters and hoodrats to greet me. Again, this was fortunate as I was feeling a bit like a droid that had just walked into the Mos Eisley Cantina. She ordered a beer and I got a five dollar glass — yes, glass — of whiskey. I was fascinated by this grungy scene.
Over the next months, I spent a significant amount of time at Rainbo. Whenever my friends and I (and sometimes just me) didn’t quite want the night to end, this is where we’d end up. Many of those nights were uneventful, but some of them involved chats with strangers from behind newspapers, stealing homemade cookies from a Christmas party I wasn’t invited to and one epic night where I silenced the whole bar with a crash from my stool to the floor. I suddenly became aware of the many florescent lights in my neighborhood and wondered what lay waiting for me behind these “welcome to” and “Old Style” signs.
One such sign shined brightly two blocks from Rainbo Club, welcoming me to a hidden gem called Innertown Pub. I walked into what seemed like a weird 21-and-up garage sale. The décor jumped out at me from every corner of this place — a Santa Claus, an Easter bunny, a jack-o-lantern and a life-sized Elvis greeted me at the door. It seemed that everything in this place had sentimental value; even the bar itself served as a speakeasy during Prohibition. The crowd that I encountered that first night reflected the neighborhood Innertown is hidden in — young professionals, borderline hipsters and a slew of artists. The glowing sign above the door boasted that this place was “Home of the Arts,” which explains both the eclectic décor and occasional impromptu music session. The down-to-earth staff quickly became a resource for restoring my faith in humanity after a day of losing it to the rigmarole of the restaurant industry. Just as Rainbo could always guarantee a fun end to my night, Innertown could secure a chill and quiet end to a long day, whether it was through a relaxed conversation at the bar, losing a game of pool or watching weird National Geographic specials on the television. There is nothing not to love.
Beginning to get the hang of this scene, I decided to walk one more block and see what mysteries lay waiting beyond a florescent-lit “Happy Village” sign. I walked in and instantly felt closer to small-town Michigan than to the middle of a city. That was the initial magic of Happy Village — well, that and the two Ping-Pong tables. While searching for the bathroom one night I found myself instead following a sign that read, “Welcome to the secret garden.” I was surprised when I emerged into a large beer garden surrounded by ivy-covered walls. Picnic and plastic patio tables accommodated the array of young adults who were playing drinking games, talking loudly and enjoying pizza they’d ordered from a local joint. Instead of the end to my night or a place to wind down, Happy Village became my start to an evening with friends. Sunday afternoons welcomed the worn-down weekend warriors of the restaurant industry, enjoying a casual afternoon before any further shenanigans of “industry night” set in. During our most indecisive moments, Happy Village allowed us to enjoy ourselves as we waited for a stroke of genius to carry us away to the rest of the evening’s adventures. Through Ping-Pong tournaments, zoning out as the televisions showed a finale of something likely called The United States Has Teenagers in it Who Can Sing Good and often running into neighbors at this dive, I’ve always felt like my nights were off to a perfect start. Happy Village quickly became a place for friends — the sort of place where you arrived with one friend, ran into five more and left with three new ones.
Though all three places welcome outside food, accept cash only and serve cheap drinks, perhaps the most common ground between them is a united distaste for suburbanite Saturday spillover. The weekends draw a larger scale of clientele, often messing with the atmosphere that the people of Ukrainian Village have come to love. Dive bars are about being local. They are important to a city full of relocated people who are trying to feel at home. They give us an escape from the stresses of our jobs, our cities and our lives in general. These three reflect my neighborhood, my friends and my city experience. They are a little part of a big city where a florescent glow makes me feel as though I’m being welcomed home.