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Roger Ebert’s Top One Bar in Chicago, and the World

The legendary writer has some four decades more familiarity with the legendary dive bar, but I can at least vouch for its singular jukebox, arguably the best in Chicago.

Old Town Ale House
Bruce Elliott

 

The great Roger Ebert has a lengthy essay on his favorite bar, the Old Town Ale House—his memories of it and the people who run and frequent it, its survival as a dive in a besotted canyon of ever-rotating upscale joints, the Chaucer-by-way-of-Old-Town blogging of artist and "left wing unemployed-by-choice gadfly and social spy” Bruce Elliott, whose racy art adorns the walls.

It’s a lovely, textured piece; Ebert gets to stretch his legs on his blog, but this piece in particular allows him a much more baroque style than his newspaper writing:

Bruce walks all over Chicago. We’ve both lived in the Old Town and Lincoln Park neighborhoods, and I’d encounter him on my rounds. One terrible hangover morning, I woke in my attic apartment at the Dudak’s house, yanked on a track suit, and walked directly outside with fear and trembling. Not feeling able to speak with confidence to anyone I might know on the sidewalk, I went down the back stairs and through the back garden, which Pop Dudak had graced with a small pond made by digging out a shallow basin, plastering it and hanging bright Christmas lights from the shrubbery growing above it. The pond’s fountain was a non-functioning shower head. “Is only for show,” explained Pop, the anachist Ukrainian playwright and window washer. The pond was occupied by a floating frog with a florescent orange golf ball glued to its forehead. “Honey, are you sure this is the best you can do?” my mother asked.

A lot of people get by in this city in ways you’d never expect, or would imagine would ever work.

Ebert started going there a good couple decades before I was born. It doesn’t seem like it’s the bohemian bar anymore, at least nearly as much; there’s no longer a newspaper bar next to it; if there’s a blogger bar in Chicago, I’m unaware of it. (There’s Twitter, I guess; different times.)

The only thing I’d add to Ebert’s account is that, whatever its nature, it has the best jukebox in Chicago, or any bar I’ve ever been in, which is why I wrote it up for our 100 Best Bars issue. It’s heavy on jazz, some of which is extremely bar-appropriate (Johnny Hartman and Blossom Dearie, last time I was there), some of which is more unexpected, and defiantly new and local. Whether or not it is actually the best jukebox in Chicago I suppose I cannot prove, but I suspect it is the only one with Jason Adasiewicz’s Sun Rooms on it or Josh Berman’s Old Idea. There are piano concertos by Schumann and Grieg, and Bach’s Italian Concerto. Those will not cut through the din of a weekend night; for that there’s Tom Waits, Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline—and, I recall, the Bee Gees, if you must.

 

Photograph: Chicago Tribune

 

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