“An Intown Bar & Grill with Neighborhood Flair”

In what was once a sketchy part of town but is now much improved, the South Loop Club Bar & Grill is a longtime oasis even with suspect policies and a Bennigan’s-meets-Hollywood Grill atmosphere. Area students, blue collar sports fans, neighborhood night owls and visitors to Chicago will all find what they need with almost as many TVs as there are beers on tap and the SLC is open late-night. Though not club-like and without as much as a triple-decker sandwich on the menu, the South Loop Club is the place to go for food & drink for those meandering about Printers Row.

The SLC can be found at the corner of State and Balbo, diagonal to Buddy Guy’s Legends and lurking at the base of the art deco Carter Hotel. The building features oxidized copper trim between the windows, a first floor façade constructed of black stone and white-trimmed, windows that extend from the floor almost all the way to the ceiling. A humungous billboard advertising the bar hangs near the top of the building in the rear, while a New York-like fire escape hangs over the main entrance to the bar on State Street, across from what once the largest homeless shelter in the city called “The Mission.” Back then, and still somewhat today, If you encounter any panhandlers on your way to the South Loop Club, just be firm with them and you’ll have nothing to worry about. Although there’s a black & white-striped awning along Balbo, the main entrance is actually located at the corner.

Step inside and try not to be overwhelmed by an incongruous sight: a room chockers with beer company paraphernalia (including a sign for “Sheila Tequila” from Australia), a menagerie of plants, and curving glass blocks under the windows that are back-lit in neon. With all the visual stimulation, you might not even notice the eight large-screen TVs and a 70” big screen, located just inside the wooden doors with brass handles and frosted glass. Black and gray-speckled linoleum and a white drop ceiling rounds out the vintage 80’s surroundings. Seating at high-backed, black-vinyl barstools can be had at the medium-sized, diner-like bar that juts out into the center of the room. A staff that often gets yelled at openly by management serves patrons behind the bar from a selection of 60 beers. While that doesn’t measure up with top Chicago beer bars, such as Quencher’s, the Map Room and Hopleaf, it’s quite respectable all the same. The same management that reputedly can’t keep the same group of servers for more than a week also once offered a friend of mine $50 to sponsor his Grant Park softball team. To have said, “Go piss up a tree,” would have been less insulting.

Additional seating can be had all the way around the bar at a plethora of octagonal, Formica-topped cocktail tables with more high-backed vinyl chairs. Silver metal ashtrays are placed among triangular fold out menus that irritably exclaim: “15% GRATUITY TO BE ADDED TO CHECKS OF $20.00 OR MORE” prompting one to ask, is that really necessary? This policy has apparently replaced a “15% gratuity included for parties of 5 or more” that was seen blacked out under it (although not completely…). Several other annoying “notices” on the menu include:

  • “10% extra for separate checks of parties of 3 or more”
  • “$15 minimum on all credit card purchases”
  • “All substitutions are extra”
  • “Not responsible for leftover belongings”

“For fuck’s sake!” is an understandable reaction, originally designed to thwart patrons from The Mission and students from nearby Columbia College and Roosevelt University attempting to dine only on free popcorn. On the other hand, the South Loop Club serves a pretty good selection of $8 to $15 pabulum if you can find enough room on the table upon which to enjoy it. In addition, one has to be more than a little concerned at the similarity of SLC’s menu to that of the restaurant industry’s “Axis of Evil” Ruby Tuesday, TGI Friday’s and Applebee’s and honorable mention, Houlihan’s, all of which have no discernable difference. I submit to you as evidence: the “Crazy Onion.” One thing that you won’t find at any Axis of Evil location, or almost any other Chicago tavern, is the proudly featured rotisserie chicken and “Chicago’s finest tube steaks.” What is it, I ask, about the “tube steak” (not to be confused with “totally tubular tube” hot dogs at Boston Blackie’s) that makes me want to wretch? Plenty of beer, brought to you by eager waitresses, is sure to calm your stomach as will the rather pleasant view of the downtown Loop visible through the north windows.

Elsewhere at the South Loop Club, you’ll encounter two electronic dartboards against an exposed-brick southern wall, just before the hallway to the bathrooms. Plastic strips like those found in grocery store freezers cover shelves stocked with beer beyond the bar near to two dozen+ hats and helmets on display. The kitchen forms almost a separate take out place just east of the main barroom. A door leads to it just to the right of the Golden Tee from the bar and a second entrance also provides access.

“Fairly cheap beer and stale popcorn appease the guests which group into cliques of motley dimensions. Half a dozen film students at one table, talking loudly about Godard vs. Truffaut, next to a table of working men just off the job talking sports and women. Many people seem to love the bar, apparent regulars, but there’s a mean-spiritedness in the air which is a cloud far more dense than that of the unmoving smoke. Nobody seems happy at this bar, everybody seems bitter and unwelcoming, including the staff. I appreciate dives, don’t get me wrong, I’d rather drink at L&L than any other bar around Belmont & Clark, and Carol’s is one of my favorite bars in the whole city, but the South Loop Club has a cruelty in it, an indomitable ugliness which has become part of the room in the form of the dirty yellowgreen lights. Go there to drink but nothing else.”

– Adam Payne, Centerstage Chicago

The SLC is like Spectrum in Greektown, Mother Hubbard’s in River North and Hawkeye’s in Little Italy the only real “neighborhood joint” in the area, which would be considered a cheesy sports bar anywhere else. This atmosphere always seems to attract blue collar types in the ‘hood as well as local students (from Columbia College and Roosevelt University, in this instance). Students may especially appreciate that the bar is open until 4:00am every night but Saturday when it’s open until 5:00am. If the bizarre local custom found at the South Loop Club or the crush of smoke and bar promotions start to get on your tits, there’s always Kasey’s old-school dive bar action and Hackney’s good but over-hyped burgers one block west on Dearborn. What’s also strange is that the owners of the SLC describe it in part as a martini bar for “the elite,” perhaps shamelessly trying to pander to some of the hotel traffic in the area. Regardless, if you find yourself stuck in the area, the SLC will do. Alternatively, you’ll find Jazz Showcase a few blocks to the west. For more information, check out the South Loop Club website.

“While waiting on a friend with a group of people notice a young woman who isn’t being allowed into the bar. After some confusion I notice the lady who isn’t being allowed in is the friend I am waiting on. She tells me that the doorman had confused her with a hooker who was getting friendly with customers last week. Of course this was the first time either of us had been to this place. We order food and beer and the waitress asks our group if we know my female friend who is sitting with us. Some of the group knew her, other didn’t. The waitress then goes and tells the doorman that we really don’t know her and are just covering it up. So again he pulls the young lady aside and asks her to leave. This time the group is saying ‘Hey we know her!’ At this point we just want to pay and leave. After 20 minutes of waiting with our coat on the waitress finally gets up from eating her dinner, and hands us our check. After the disrespect, bad service, I leave a bad tip. The waitress then follows me outside asking me why I left a poor tip. A. the bar called my friend a HOOKER and would not allow her in; B. The service sucked C. Food was bad, beer was warm. Do I need to go on? Worst bar EVER.”

– J.S. (October 25, 2006)

Here’s another review by John McNally, author of America’s Report Card, for another “glowing” review of the South Loop Club, entitled simply, “You Suck.”

“Holy crap! I laughed out loud when you wrote that the $50 for the softball team was equivalent to telling your buddy to ‘piss up a tree.’ I am a commercial real estate broker/investor and I do restaurant and bar deals, too – in fact, tried to do something with the SLC. They told me to go ‘piss up a tree,’ too!!”

– J.W. (March 2, 2007)

Photograph taken by Carla G. Surratt of Picturing Chicago

South Loop Club: You Suck by John McNally
(click here for his blog, reprinted here in case his blog ascends into the either along with everyone else’s)

By and large, I’ve been enjoying my time in Chicago. And last night I had a great time with Columbia folks at the wonderful Cafe Penelope. I shouldn’t have left! Or, rather, I should have gone straight home. Did I? Of course not. After Cafe Penelope, around one a.m., I was dropped off at South Loop Club (1 E. Balbo Ave.) for a nightcap. Or two. Or three.

Keep in mind: It’s minus-four-degrees out (and, according to, it felt like minus-twenty-one-degrees). Which is to say that it was cold out. Really cold. So I walk inside and head toward a table. I take off my coat, gloves, scarf. A waitress comes up and asks if I’m by myself, and when I admit that, yes, I’m alone, she tells me that I have to sit at the bar.

“This is the beginning of our busy time,” she says. “We need these tables.”

I look around. There are fifteen empty tables. In other words, over half the place is empty.

“I’m sorry,” she says.

I look outside: the streets have turned white, it’s so cold. There’s no one in sight except for a woman running down the street holding the hood of her coat, keeping it up so as to block the onslaught of wind.

“I’ll go somewhere else,” I say.

I put my coat back on, my scarf, my gloves. And, true to my word, I go somewhere else.

When I get back to my apartment at 2:32 a.m., I can’t help myself. I call the South Loop Club. A guy answers.

I say, “I’ve got a group of twenty people heading over to your place. Do you have enough tables?”

“We’ve got plenty of tables,” he says. “When are you coming over?”

“Right now,” I tell him. “We’ll be there in about twenty minutes.”

Plenty of tables. (I’m no Nostradamus, I’m no soothsayer, I don’t walk around with a Magic 8 Ball in my pocket, but I could have predicted as much, my friends.)

So…I’ve got three words for you, South Loop Club. Can you guess what they are?