There are few things in Chicago that are better than being at the lakefront in the summertime, especially when you’re having a margarita at Castaways Bar & Grill. Most beer gardens offer a view of the surrounding brick walls, the sites and sounds of the nearest alley, or are really sidewalk cafés whose potted plants attempt to absorb all the bus and taxi exhaust. Castaways instead offers a superb vista where you can take in the tranquility of Lake Michigan, amateur beach volleyball matches and your fill of Chicago’s finest hard-bodies. If that’s not enough for you, Castaways also serves a halfway decent selection of pub grub, doles out a steady stream of frozen specialties, and often features cover bands. What more could you want when the weather’s warm at the only bar in Chicago along the lake?
Castaways can be found smack dab in the middle of the North Avenue Street Beach. To get there, just follow North Ave. until it hits the lake or take the lakefront path until it reaches the southern edge of the volleyball courts. There, you’ll find what looks like a small, permanently docked ocean liner, complete with red smokestacks, painted life preservers, a white hull with blue trim and a plethora of multicolored patio umbrellas. If you drive, don’t expect to find any parking in the wholly inadequate lot adjacent to the establishment, unless you don’t mind circling for an hour until you’re lucky enough to find someone leaving right in front of you. Bikers and rollerbladers also take note: watch out for volleyballs spiked at your head and the horde of unsupervised children that run willy-nilly between the water and the first floor of what is officially known as the North Avenue Beach House, which features locker rooms, restroom facilities and outdoor showers that help to wash all the sand off (except for that bit between your toes). Castaways itself can be found on the second floor of the boathouse, accessible via one of two staircases located within each of the smokestacks (reminiscent of the Normandy, depicted behind the bar at Simon’s in Andersonville).
Although not short on space, the black-painted metal patio tables can be as difficult to come by as a come-from-behind victory by the Cubs. Your best bet to get a seat is in the late afternoon hours on the weekends and before the volleyball leagues finish during the week (between 7 and 8pm). Here, waitresses flitter around sporadically, taking orders from a fairly standard menu of appetizers – highlighted by the Louisiana Popcorn (deep-fried spicy crawfish served with honey mustard) and the Ravioli Español (deep-fried ravioli stuffed with spicy cheese and salsa for dipping) – as well as salads, burgers, and sandwiches ($8 each, on average). Dessert features both mint chocolate chip and cookies & cream ice cream cake. The food is good, but you might have to wait up to a half hour for it to reach your table so don’t arrive famished. Not surprisingly, the drinks selection predominantly centers around the frozen concoctions that help you hang on: margaritas (regular and mango), piña coladas, hurricanes, mai tais, electric lemonades, and daiquiris, all for $6. Castaways also offers a smattering of domestic brews ($3.50), wine ($6 a glass or $24-$34 per bottle), Gatorade ($3.25) and, in odd retro fashion, a selection of soda including RC and Diet Rite. A walk-up bar that serves all of the above can be found facing the beach, between fake palm trees and towards the north end of Castaways. A service window serving food only is located at the south end.
In my opinion, Castaways is at its best from Tuesday through Thursday, following volleyball, when the bar has a great vibe (though very crowded) and features 16-ounce tallboys of Budweiser and Miller for $4. The only drawback at these times is when Castaways plays host to private parties. I remember being there one night when half of the entire bar was closed for a private party that barely drew 50 people. It turned out to be one of the lamest parties I’ve ever seen – bad music, a terrible DJ, and even worse dancing. Ugh. On a refreshing note, the bar once hosted a $20 all-you-can-drink deal from 7-11pm (which is quite common on the weekends). A long queue formed of people waiting to get in and, inevitably, three attractive girls with hip-hugger jeans and plenty of attitude sauntered past everyone and straight up to the front of the line, expecting to use their looks to get in. The bouncer, being a once-removed City of Chicago employee and not prone to the bullshit favoritism common with most other bouncers in this city, firmly rebuffed these ladies and the entire line savored their walk of shame to the back. Poetic justice my friends… Weekends at Castaways feature live music, primarily playing rock and retro cover tunes, and occasional DJs. The bar also offers prime seating during the Chicago Air & Water Show held every August. In lieu of performances and special events, the staff will throw on a CD (and will hopefully take it off before it’s played three times in a row). Bathing suit attire and bare feet are more than welcome at all times.
Castaways, as part of the North Avenue Beach House, has become one of the crown jewels of the Chicago Park District. The structure before it was a nearly identical boathouse that was erected in 1939 and later received landmark status. However, considering its dilapidated nature, the Chicago Park District received permission to tear it down and they replaced it in May 2000 with the $8 million structure you see that serves 6.5 million people per year today. In addition to Castaways and the locker room, the 22,000 square foot North Avenue Beach House features the Ice Cream Café, Beachside Burgers, lifeguard stations and a rental office for bikes, chairs and volleyball equipment. Castaways itself is actually managed as part of the Stefani empire, which also includes the Riva Café, Chango Loco, Stefani’s, Harborside Golf Course, Burnham Harbor, Tavern on Rush, 437 Rush, and Tuscany on Clark. Considering that 80% of the lakefront is public property within city limits, Castaways is truly unique as the only Chicago bar on Lake Michigan.
Castaways is a far cry from the rat-infested dump that it was before and has easily become one of the best beer gardens in Chicago. Kudos goes to the city and the park district for not only renovating the structure into a top-notch facility, but also for opening up the management of the Castaways space to Stefani. One can only imagine what it would be like if the bar and grill where operated by the city [insert cold shiver here]. The only major drawback to Castaways is that, as the place fills up, the quality of service drops exponentially. If you can stand that, there’s no better way to spend an afternoon or evening than to have some food and drinks while gazing over Lake Michigan and the Chicago skyline. Unfortunately, all things must come to an end and that certainly affects Castaways; the incredibly popular bar & grill only keeps restaurant-like hours (the joint shuts at 11:00pm) and stay open only until the end of September (no Indian Summer festivities at Castaways…). My advice: head to Castaways during the week after work. From this vantage point, you can catch the bathing beauties before they go home, watch the volleyball leagues and boats on the lake, and appreciate the two months of Chicago summer. For more information, check out the Castaways Bar & Grill website. All aboard!