Have you ever walked into a bar and briefly wondered whether you had just stumbled into an Abercrombie & Fitch photo shoot? The patrons, so alike in age, attitude and attire that you feel you may have missed the memo? The same brand of domestic brew is cupped in every hand (not even on special) and for a moment you fully expect them to turn to you in unison and begin chanting, “One of us”?
That is absolutely not the feeling you get as you step inside the Clark Street Ale House. My first impression, even before I took in the bar’s set up and décor, was one of diversity and inclusion. Tables of twenty-something urbanites banter happily next to groups of revelers who are, at least theoretically, old enough to be their parents. White-collar workers sit next to blue-collar tradesmen who sit next to no-collar patrons (tourists in t-shirts and shorts). The common thread among the varied clientele is a simple desire to enjoy their favorite drink and time with friends in a laid-back and unassuming atmosphere.
In fact, Clark Street Ale House goes out of its way to be an unpretentious oasis in the chic desert of River North. It begins out front with antique neon signage that encourages passersby to “Stop and Drink,” the notation “Liquor House” intentionally blinking to emit a faux-dive feel. It serves as a welcome beacon for those seeking a simple place to quench their thirst, while perhaps encouraging those headed for the nearby “Viagra Triangle” to get a move on before their pills wear off. Stop & Drink was actually the name of the pub prior to its reincarnation as Clark Street Ale House in May 1994.
The interior is rectangular, with exposed red brick along two sides and a hand-painted mural covering the entirety of the back wall. High-boy tables and chairs cover most of the floor space, providing plenty of seating. The cherry bar itself is detailed, refined and the staging area for a veritable treasure trove of liquid pleasures. About the only negative I can muster is in regards to the beer garden at the back of the premises. Surrounded on three sides by towering walls, there is scarcely enough ventilation to blow out a match and the concrete slab of the patio has all the charm of a prison exercise yard. I fully understand the need for a bar to maximize their floor space and provide customers with an outdoor option, but Clark Street’s beer garden is nothing to write home about. Their liquor selection, however, is worthy of a postcard to two.
“The neon ‘Stop and Drink Liquor’ sign on Clark is like a thirsty beer traveler’s ‘vacancy’ sign. Heed its call, and you’ll be swallowed up in the dark, woody lair confines of one of Chicago’s great beer pubs. The ornate back bar, muraled walls, high ceilings and dim light recall a time when ward bosses like Michael ‘Hinky Dink’ Kenna ran rooming houses, trading barrel-drawn spirits for votes.”– excerpt from Michael Nagrant’s Centerstage Chicago review
Clark Street Ale House boasts a selection of nearly 100 beers, two dozen of which are on tap. In addition to domestic and international favorites, Clark Street houses an extensive offering of American microbrews, from North Coast’s Scrimshaw Pilsner to Three Floyds Gumballhead Wheat. There is no shame in taking five minutes to peruse the beer list before making your first selection. Chances are you’ll end up with a quality choice. If the voluminous beer list isn’t enough to overwhelm you, Clark Street Ale House’s Scotch library just might. From a list of over three dozen blends and single-malts, fans of the movie Swingers will be happy to know that all the major “Glens” are covered. There are also many excellent, but lesser known Scotches on hand, but be forewarned: correctly pronouncing some of them can cause a second degree tongue sprain. There is no kitchen at Clark Street but there are plenty of pretzels on hand.
Clark Street Ale House is a must-visit spot when in the River North area. Their fantastic beer list is worthy of comparison to such notable pubs as Bucktown’s Map Room and Andersonville’s Hopleaf. Their Scotch selection, as well as its list of cognacs, rival anything this side of the Duke of Perth. Clark Street Ale House is just about the perfect place to meet with friends, or make new ones, and you just may leave the place having just found your newest favorite drink. For more information, check out Clark Street Ale House’s website.