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These spots merit some hang time even if you don't stay for the food

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Best spots for $2 Guinness pints, judgment-free dancing, White Sox sightings, and more

RIVER WEST / WEST LOOP

FUNKY BUDDHA LOUNGE Even after 14 years—and with a $20 cover—this clubbing staple still draws a crowd as diverse as its music: hip-hop, electronic, and reggae, depending on the DJ. Sneak a glance at the wall of tribal masks before the lights dim around 11 p.m., when the volume cranks, and dancing dominates the agenda. For respite from the claustrophobic dance floor, snag a tiger-print booth and a cocktail mixed with organic juices. 728 W. Grand Ave.; 312-666-1695 cover charge | live music | dj

JUICY WINE COMPANY This wine bar has a split personality. On the ground floor is a deli and bar offering artisan cheeses, cured meats, and bottles of wine to go. But the place to hang out is upstairs, where exposed brick walls and pop art create a sophisticated but snob-free setting. There, casual connoisseurs sip from a selection of more than 80 boutique wines and chat over DJ-spun tunes on weekends. 694 N. Milwaukee Ave.; 312-492-6620 food available | outdoor seating | dj

LUMEN Lumen doesn’t try as hard as some other clubs in town. And that’s a beautiful thing. Sure, there’s a line outside and a cover charge after 11 p.m., but the club doesn’t fawn over celebrities or have a door policy that feels like a beauty contest. Instead, expect friendly staff and a massive 5,000-square-foot space dominated by a kaleidoscopic video and light system. If it wasn’t serving shots and blasting dance music, Lumen would feel like a giant art gallery. 839 W. Fulton Market; 312-733-2222, lumen-chicago.com cover charge (after 11 p.m.) | dj

THE MATCHBOX It doesn’t serve food. There’s no craft cocktail menu. And it measures a mere 465 square feet. There’s nothing fancy about the Matchbox, and that’s exactly why we like it. The fact that it may be Chicago’s smallest bar often overshadows another crucial superlative: The bartenders serve up some of the stiffest cocktails in town. Not froufrou drinks, mind you, but the classics: margaritas, gimlets, and, in winter, a mighty fine brandy Manhattan. The drinks go down easy; the hard part is scoring a seat. To do so, get there before 6 p.m. 770 N. Milwaukee Ave.; 312-666-9292, thesilverpalmrestaurant.com food available (outside only) | outdoor seating

TASTING ROOM You should bring a date here. This West Loop wine bar has the requisite bells and whistles: candlelit tables, mellow tunes, exposed brick walls, hardwood floors, comfy couches. We fell for the place when our server, fluent in winespeak, suggested a flight named after a cheesy pickup line: “Did it hurt when you fell from heaven?” This is one wine bar that’s classy without taking itself too seriously. 1415 W. Randolph St.; 312-942-1313, thetastingroomchicago.com food available | outdoor seating | dj (Sat.)

WEST END This is what happens when the Four Corners Tavern Group (Gaslight, Schoolyard, and so on) dreams big: a lively sports bar with buzz, good-looking crowds, and a solid menu. And though it’s a short walk from the United Center, West End offers a free shuttle some nights. Make this your spot to party before the game, after, or both. 1326 W. Madison St.; 312-981-7100, westendwestloop.com food available | outdoor seating | dj

UKRAINIAN VILLAGE

BAR DeVILLE An elegantly worn-in parlor ambiance complements the classic cocktails mixed by Brad Bolt, who honed his chops at The Violet Hour. There’s no drink menu (though at presstime one was planned for early 2010), but bartenders will expertly mix almost anything you can name, provided it doesn’t include Red Bull and flavored vodka (try the terrific Sazerac). A photo booth and pool table are bonuses. 701 N. Damen Ave.; 312-929-2349, bardeville.com

HAPPY VILLAGE Like a year-round block party at the neighborhood’s most popular house. The amenities: free Ping-Pong on two tables, cheap beer, and an expansive, landscaped beer garden—complete with a bubbling waterfall, heaters, and fake-grape-bedecked trellises. Three-dollar Monday specials on Schlitz; $2 beer specials (Hamm’s, PBR) all weekend. 1059 N. Wolcott Ave.; 773-486-1512, happyvillagebar.com outdoor seating

J & M TAP (A.K.A. THE SECRET SQUIRREL) There’s almost always a free seat at this Ukie Village gem—surprising, given its low-as-you-can-go specials (“$3.50 everything” Mondays), free pretzel rods and pool, sweetheart bartenders, and solid jukebox. It hasn’t been “secret” for a while: There’s an established yet friendly hipster presence—perhaps responsible for the spot’s nickname—but you wouldn’t know it at the low-key Sunday movie night. Regulars cast votes for a DVD and help themselves to a spread of pizza, popcorn, cupcakes, and candy. 957 N. Leavitt St.; jandm-tap.blogspot.com

SMALL BAR These two sister bars (plus a third, too new to make our list, in Lincoln Park) offer one of the city’s best selections of international and domestic microbrews (more than 100 options) and are equally generous in describing the beers for curious patrons. The notable bar food includes a burger we named one of the city’s best (September 2009 issue). Bonuses: The Ukrainian Village location regularly screens international soccer, while the Logan Square original has a lovely secluded patio. 2049 W. Division St., 773-772-2727; 2956 N. Albany Ave., 773-509-9888; thesmallbar.com food available | outdoor seating

WICKER PARK / BUCKTOWN

BIG STAR Tacos, whiskey, and honky-tonk tunes in a minimalist saloon from los jefes behind Danny’s, The Violet Hour, and The Publican. We’ve got our next order mapped out—lamb taco, guac, $7 San Antonio Sling—if we ever manage to snag another stool. 1531 N. Damen Ave.; 773-235-4039 food available | outdoor seating

THE BLUEBIRD Bucktown has been yuppifying for years, but it took a while for neighborhood nightlife to catch up. This upscale spot, a cross between a wine bar and a gastropub, does the job, with just enough of a beautiful-people scene to keep things interesting. The epicurean wine and beer lists are extensive, but don’t overlook the sophisticated lineup of small plates. 1749 N. Damen Ave.; 773-486-2473, bluebirdchicago.com food available

DANNY’S TAVERN Under the cloak of candlelight, this converted house oozes a metropolitan shabby chic. With wines by the glass, a respectable beer list (from $3 PBRs to $8 bottled bliss), and a welcoming, arty crowd, this Bucktown institution lacks the pretensions of Damen Avenue’s boutique row, but the eclectic DJ lineup and carefree dancing continue to draw hip crowds. 1951 W. Dickens Ave.; 773-489-6457 dj

MAP ROOM The encyclopedic beer list is one of the best in town, but this bookish tavern doesn’t have the shoulder-to-shoulder crowds that pack fellow beer shrine the Hopleaf. Tucked away from Wicker Park’s nearby hubbub, Map Room has a clientele that skews local (read: hearty dudes with ZZ Top beards). Beers run around $7 but pack twice the punch (or more) of mainstream brews like PBR. Bonus: The spot transforms into a coffee shop in the morning. 1949 N. Hoyne Ave.; 773-252-7636, maproom.com

QUENCHERS SALOON Serving since 1979, Quenchers is like the Map Room’s no-good slouch of a brother: 300-plus beers, from Argentina to Vietnam, in a scruffy Elks Lodge of a bar stocked with dusty beer steins, free popcorn, and questionable food (e.g., the infamous Tater Tot pizza). We love it. 2401 N. Western Ave.; 773-276-9730, quenchers.com food available | live music

THE VIOLET HOUR Cell phones: forbidden. Standing is out, too, though anyone willing to wait in line will eventually gain a coveted seat beyond the blue velvet curtain (at $12 each, the elaborate craft cocktails mean folks don’t stick around for more than a round or two). But it all lends to the allure. We say the Juliet and Romeo—a delicate blend of cucumber, mint, rose water, and gin—is one for the ages. 1520 N. Damen Ave.; 773-252-1500, theviolethour.com food available

LOGAN SQUARE / AVONDALE

BARRA Ñ The place to take your globetrotting friend who says Chicago is all hot dogs and sports bars. A chic, diverse crowd fills this best-kept secret, a sliver of a lounge owned by the Tango Sur/Folklore team. Go early for Latin eats; by 9 p.m., it’s all mojitos and beats. Think Buenos Aires by way of a Brooklyn house party, with dancing. 2977 N. Elston Ave.; 773-866-9898 food available | outdoor seating | dj

THE BURLINGTON Go during the week and—what with the wooden pews lining the bare brick wall, the shin-high tables that seem meant for kneeling, and the dimmer-than-a-confession-booth lighting—it’s a little like drinking in a monastery, good beer included. Except for the DJs. The music’s great, but it’s always loud, and on weekends a hip crowd competes in volume. 3425 W. Fullerton Ave.; 773-384-3243 dj

CAFÉ LURA In a word, cavernous—both for its meandering floor plan, with rooms for lounging and for dancing, but also for its gothic, grottolike décor. This Polish club, whose longtime owner passed away recently, has seen better days, but the weekend DJs continue to draw a crowd, and there’s still nothing quite like it. 3184 N. Milwaukee Ave.; 773-736-3033 cover charge (occasionally) | live music | dj

CHIEF O’NEILL’S This authentic Irish tap’s tag line reads: “The pub you’ve been practicing for.” True enough, but we’d go one further and say it’s the best pub, period, on the Northwest Side. A separate dining room (used on weekends) means the front bar stays mostly devoted to tossing back pints, while the backyard is a slice of heaven for city dwellers starved for grass. 3471 N. Elston Ave.; 773-583-3066, chiefoneillspub.com food available | outdoor seating | live music

COLE’S The charming and bespectacled proprietor, Coleman Brice, pours a superb rotating selection of $5 craft beers (recently: local Metropolitan Dynamo Copper Lager, North Coast Old No. 38) in this freshly scrubbed former pool hall. Coffeehouse tunes typically give way to live indie rock (comedians on Wednesdays) in the backroom. It’s a touch rough around the edges, but can a place with bathrooms this spotless really be called a dive? 2338 N. Milwaukee Ave.; 773-276-5802 live music | dj (Thurs.)

DRAGONLADY LOUNGE The best kind of dive: owner-operated, in this case by Sue Chong, your stand-in Korean mom. Every Thursday she whips up a vegan buffet; line up in the kitchen and load your plate as Sue worries whether you’re getting enough to eat. Wash it down with a PBR or High Life, or make Sue’s day and order a $2.50 Dragon Slayer shot. 3188 N. Elston Ave.; 773-597-5617 food available | live music (occasionally)

SMALL BAR These two sister bars (plus a third, too new to make our list, in Lincoln Park) offer one of the city’s best selections of international and domestic microbrews (more than 100 options) and are equally generous in describing the beers for curious patrons. The notable bar food includes a burger we named one of the city’s best (September 2009 issue). Bonuses: The Ukrainian Village location regularly screens international soccer, while the Logan Square original has a lovely secluded patio. 2049 W. Division St., 773-772-2727; 2956 N. Albany Ave., 773-509-9888; thesmallbar.com food available | outdoor seating

WEEGEE’S LOUNGE If the Logan-bordering-on-Humboldt location keeps the crowds at bay, fine by us. The owner, Alex Huebner, takes classic cocktailing seriously: Don’t bother asking for Bud. Do order a sidecar, then sidle up to play shuffleboard in this vintage-themed lounge, named for the 1930s-era crime photographer Arthur “Weegee” Fellig. 3659 W. Armitage Ave.; 773-384-0707 outdoor seating

THE WHISTLER Violet Hour drinks at Logan Square prices. Early, it’s a quiet cove for impeccably crafted, affordable cocktails ($8) that change with the seasons; late, it’s a hipster haven with live music and a line out the door. A rotating art installation in the front window sets the scene. 2421 N. Milwaukee Ave.; 773-227-3530, whistlerchicago.com outdoor seating | live music

HUMBOLDT PARK

THE CALIFORNIA CLIPPER We had given the Clipper a wide berth since a regrettable Saturday a few years back when the rear “tiki room” was overrun by squealing bachelorettes. Some time apart did us good: The 73-year-old bar-as-club-car is as beautiful as ever, and at a cool $6 for an egg cream, even the prices are retro. Live swing, jazz, and rockabilly on weekends; bingo on Mondays. 1002 N. California Ave.; 773-384-2547, californiaclipper.com live music

ROOTSTOCK WINE & BEER BAR A wine bar without an ounce of pretension? It’s like the Hopleaf moved to Humboldt Park, traded in beer for wine (though there is a smart shortlist of microbrews available), and actually had seats open on a Saturday night (well, sometimes). To the trio of Webster Wine Bar vets behind this brainstorm: Thank you. 954 N. California Ave.; 773-292-1616, rootstockbar.com food available | outdoor seating

CRAGIN

BIM BOM Everyone should go once, if only once: You’ve got to see the Gehryesque exterior to believe it. Inside, more rolled tin, plus neighborhood regulars and encroaching hipsters eyeing one another across the foosball table, with Polish pints as common ground. Don’t miss the restrooms, papered with his and hers nudie pics. Cash only. 5226 W. Belmont Ave.; 773-777-2120