Editor’s note: the Border Line Tap has closed and has re-opened as the Wicker Park Tap.
What happens when you mix trendy Whites, Blacks and Hispanics in an after-hours bar in the heart of Wicker Park? You’ll find out at the Border Line Tap. Rather than a quiet neighborhood pub, like the name may imply to some, it’s closer to a hip version of a bar you might find in Tijuana. Exotic women, the occasional spilling of blood and an excellent beer selection are par for the course at the Border Line – a place considered sexy by women and seriously cool by men.
The Border Line is located at the epicenter of activity in Wicker Park formulated by the intersections of Milwaukee, North and Damen. At night, this district is hopping with activity from nuevo yuppies at Cans, Bar Louie and Northside, lounge lizards at Sinibar, Estelle’s, and Subterranean, and alternative music fans taking in a show at the Double Door. All come to the Border Line, located on the southeast corner of North and Damen in an old three-story, red-brick building. It literally took me years to figure out which corner that was as somehow, nothing to do with alcohol I assure you, I could never picture the right orientation of this intersection in my head. Anyway, a humble black and white sign hangs above the corner entrance (mind the brick post) over neon-filled, plate glass windows that almost stretch from the floor to the ceiling and offer an impressive view of the area. Be sure to have your ID ready as the bouncers always card and an ornery line will form quickly behind you.
“Late night consummations at Border Line have surely resulted in more pregnancies than marriages”Shecky’s Bar, Club & Lounge Guide 2002
Inside, you’ll find a smattering of low-slung tables with candle globes and banquette seating under tiny hanging lights that illuminate colorful murals on the southern wall, in the squarish front part of the room. If you’re with a group or are a couple of lasses looking to meet a few gentlemen, this is the place for you as conversations will not have to be forced over barely audible, eclectic music played strictly in the background (reggae on Sundays). For those looking for a bit more action, head to the bar. Tattoo-laden alternachicks serve cocktails and an impressive array of beer from old-fashioned wooden coolers and will recite the entire drinks menu until you choose something if you’re feeling a bit indecisive. Those standing or seated at the bar are generally more than happy to entertain you (and themselves), at least for awhile, and may even produce phone numbers and perhaps more, on occasion. Even the crew from Real World Chicago hung out here when they weren’t working over at Piece, just down the street on North Avenue. I know, that’s not really an endorsement for the bar, but I thought you should know anyway. When the nicotine cravings become more audible than the music, grab a pack of smokes from the potato chip-style vending machine in the back, located just before the bathrooms and payphones at the east end of the bar.
As the clock ticks away until 4:00 a.m. each night, and 5:00 a.m. on Saturdays, the glow gets redder, the banter more interesting and the crowd more varied and lecherous. Border Line can be a good place to pick up alternative and even exotic types if that’s what you’re into, provided you’re not too shit-canned like I was every time I paid a visit after 2:00am, when the place gets really packed thanks to all the other bars in the area letting out. This brings me to the Sacred Rule of Drinking: nothing good happens after 2:00am. Perhaps you may doubt the value of this rule. If so, just think about how many times you talked to Ralph on the big white telephone, opened your wallet the next morning to find that the $200 you got from the ATM the night before is completely gone, you were rude to the staff at Taco Burrito Palace #2, you yelled at the cab driver for taking Lake Shore Drive when he should have driven through the park, you had a 5:00 a.m. “Beef” at Cubbie Doggs, or you woke up either with some cretinous mass in your bed or worse – in your head? I know, I know, too many. Me too. That’s why, no matter how much of a good idea it seems, just head home to bed when all the normal bars shut down for the night or suffer the consequences! There is one important exception to the rule: nothing good will start after 2:00 a.m. So, if you need extra time to “close the deal” with someone, just make sure it’s all wrapped up by 3:00 a.m. Otherwise, you’re too tired, they’re too tired and someone’s talking about watching the sunrise over the lake (which for some reason makes me want to gag involuntarily). While the bar gets going late, Border Line can still be a good place to hang out after 10:00 p.m. or during the day on the weekends even though they no longer serve Mediterranean delicacies as they once did in the mid-90’s (presumably dropped at the same time “Cafe” was as part of their name). If nothing’s happening during prime time, just head upstairs to Red Dog – the entrance is around the corner in the back.
Guys, take my advice: the bar is crowded and the space narrow between it and the north wall filled with people perched at the windowsills. People are going to bump into you. The more respectful you are of those around you, the more no one will care. A few “excuse me’s” will do nicely. If you start elbowing people to guard your space, you could end up like the guy a saw who got pissy and got a glass broken over his face. The perpetrator then slipped out the side door and escaped any retaliation or persecution. While things like this aren’t common at the Border Line, they still happen from time to time so enjoy yourself without being an asshole. If this has you a bit leery, Wednesdays and Thursdays are a bit calmer than the weekends and sometimes attract more femininas. Ladies, you may also want to take note of the “facilities” at Border Line. Centerstage Chicago points out the, “Women’s restrooms are notable: heavy on the industrial prison, lightly English Tudor. We know people who come by just to visit the loo.” Mildly intriguing, at the least.
“If the intersection of Milwaukee, Damen and North is ‘the crotch’ of Wicker Park, then this loud, smoky late night corner watering hole, with its diverse cast of characters is the zipper.”
So, there you have it – Border Line is one of the best after-hours bars in the city, ranking up there with Nick’s (just down the street on Milwaukee) and sibling Nick’s Uptown, Katacomb and the Store for late night debauchery. It has everything you might be looking for: beer, booze, cigarettes, drugs, wine, women, and surprisingly pleasant bathrooms. Think of it as a Liar’s Club without the fez and dance floor. Though the crowd has moved on somewhat, along with the poetry nights and menu, there’s still plenty of Bohemians and working class neighborhood-types to mix with the influx of more monied masses. All in all, the Border Line Tap remains a fine initial creation from brothers Sam and Don Mehmeti, who went on to open Green Dolphin Street at Webster and Ashland, the nightclub Red Dog upstairs to Border Line, and Cafe Absinthe just next to Border Line. NewCity Chicago even rated it “Best Meet-Market Bar” in Chicago – a distinction hard to top. My advice, complete your Madonna mini-pub crawl by having a meal, cocktails and a game of pool at Holiday and then stagger over to Border Line once the Pabst has taken its toll. Shagadelic, baby.