“Chicago’s Most Intimate Bar”
Though I don’t make it there too often, the Matchbox is one of my personal favorite Chicago bars. It’s not because it edges out the Zebra Lounge as the smallest bar in Chicago, nor is it the libations created by the bartenders, well skilled in the cocktail arts. I like the Matchbox because it’s more intimate than small, and if there’s something I can appreciate, it’s the art of conversation and the Matchbox never disappoints. Thanks be to owner David Gevercer who not only restored the original charm of the Matchbox, which had been open for a half-century prior by an old Israeli named Siegel, but also because he refused to corrupt the bar’s unique atmosphere by expanding into the empty lot next door (larger than the bar itself), before or after its re-opening on June 2, 1995 even though it came with the sale.
The Matchbox is located near Goose Island in the River West neighborhood, at the northwest corner of Milwaukee and Ogden, just south of Chicago Avenue with its second installation of D’Agostino’s across the street. Not only is it small, but the bar can also be hard to spot also because there is no sign. “The Matchbox” in written in small, scratched white lettering painted near the bottom of windows overlooking both cross-streets. The quasi-triangular, single-room, red-brick building is actually the shape of a book of matches placed on its side, but as Phil Brandt quotes owner David Gevercer in Barfly’s Guide to Chicago’s Drinking Establishments (2000), “I think when he named the bar, his English was not very good and that’s why he called it the Matchbox not knowing the difference between a matchbox and a book of matches.”
As you push the bar’s tiny-windowed, red door open, do so carefully. There’s likely to be someone just on the other side who is going to suffer for it, and that could be you or I. Once inside, the Matchbox is likely to feel even smaller than you expect. A very worn, candle-lit wooden bar runs almost the entire length of the southern wall and there’s not much space between the twenty or so backless barstools and the northern wall. In fact, you’ll literally have to squeeze your way past those sitting towards the end of the bar, sucking it in as you walk past, as the space tapers narrower as you head to the restroom. Some head out the front door and in from the side, but that doesn’t do you much good if there are people all the way at the end of the room. Anyway, just be polite and you’ll not have to worry. While we’re on the subject, he closet at the west end of the Matchbox serving as a toilet is a one-seater, unisex john that has the smallest sink I’ve ever seen and going in there makes you feel like you’re Fortunato in Poe’s Cask of Amontillado. There’s also a rear exit just past the can, but if there’s an emergency, my advice would be to head to the front door or the side exit leading to the sidewalk café, which seems to be at least shared if not predominantly used by next door neighbor under the same ownership, Silver Palm.
“Aptly named, this wee River West bar would easily cause claustrophobic seizures with half the crowd it draws.”-Shecky’s Bar, Club & Lounge Guide 2002
Back at the bar, you can’t help but notice the burgundy tile to match the tin ceiling, exposed brick walls and a random selection of artwork and photographs behind the bar set amongst red string lights. One of these works is a framed cigar and another looks like a rendition of the bar that was hand-painted by one of the regulars. Speaking of cigars, I didn’t notice anyone smoking any but there are some available for sale behind the bar and most patrons do smoke, so if you’re a bit sensitive to that you’ll want to head elsewhere or head out to the sidewalk café in warmer weather.
In terms of libations, the Matchbox offers an intriguing selection of bottled beer, many of which you’ll not find outside of maybe a few bars like Hopleaf, Map Room or Quenchers, and there are only a few on tap including Double Diamond and Beck’s. For those in the know, margaritas are the signature cocktails at the Matchbox, which are made with Cointreau, fresh lime juice and are rimmed with powdered sugar and lemon peels (quite good indeed). The bar is also applauded for its vodka gimlets, brandy manhattans, martinis and selection of intriguing liqueurs. Don’t expect this to be spelled out for you on a cocktail menu so just ask the bartender for a recommendation. The Matchbox also sports 20 different types of bourbon and tequila, making the owners of Delilah’s and Weeds Tavern jealous, and several wines to boot. All of the above is served by experienced, though sassy bartenders that won’t put up with any shite, particularly if you slag off the bar. They’re also the ones selecting the music as they chat with the regs, so don’t get impatient.
The Matchbox tends to attract a predominantly older neighborhood crowd, 30’s on up. Everyone at the Matchbox are so close together, trying to hang out there without talking to anyone would be like trying to stay dry while pissing into the wind. “Whenever I go, I meet someone who knows a friend of mine or I meet someone who is talking to someone who knows a friend of theirs. It’s like six degrees of separation minus four degrees,” according to “Yin girl” on Planet 99 Chicago. On a recent visit, my wife and I met two locals, one a regular that knew everyone in the bar, and the other less so. It didn’t take us long to fall into a conversation with them (I timed it at about five minutes) and we hung out all night, talking about the one’s arranged marriage to a Japanese woman and the other’s experience with spinal massage. Actually, we found that we have several things in common, so we swapped notes on Colombia, the Finns and whether or not Landmark Education is a cult. If there’s a TV in the place, I’ve never noticed it. The Matchbox doesn’t serve food, other than bagged snacks behind the bar, so head next door to what was once a parking lot and have yourself a meal at Silver Palm, which serves as inventive a menu as the Matchbox’s selection of spirits.
Some call the Matchbox a dive, but I don’t think it is. It seems more of a classic neighborhood joint in a part of the city that doesn’t really feel like a neighborhood, even with all the new condos being built. Although the Matchbox is more crowded than the #36 bus by the time it reaches the Illinois Center during the evening rush, the atmosphere is friendly, relaxed and is conducive for making a few new friends, at least for a night. As such, the place is good for a pre-dinner cocktail on your way home from work, pre-gaming before a night out or for a nightcap on the way home to your warm bed.
I recommend heading to Matchbox during the week, otherwise you’ll risk physically not fitting into the place and you don’t want to be the loser standing outside on the corner. Cabs are not plentiful on weekdays so, though I am loathe to suggest it, driving is your best bet if you don’t live close and there’s plenty of street parking. The Blue Line to Chicago Avenue is another option, though not recommended late (after 10pm). Otherwise, early or late on weekends via cab will work. However you get there, you’ll be glad you did. Kippis!
“Okay, just one more.”