Danny’s Tavern

Many classic Bucktown mainstays like Artful Dodger, Get Me High Lounge and Rich’s First One Today have recently gone the way of Lincoln Carpeting and Polk Brothers, so it is satisfying to know that Danny’s Tavern is still going strong. Even though its name seems innocuous enough, Danny’s funky cool vibe has made Bucktown a type of bar genre in addition to being the name of the neighborhood that surrounds it. Yes, it is true that as the neighborhood has regentrified, Danny’s has lost some of its hipster status but that distinction lies only in the minds of those living in the past – otherwise, they’d be hanging out in Logan Square, Humboldt Park or Bronzeville instead.

You’ll find Danny’s on Dickens, just east of Damen where it’s a stone’s throw from brethren bar Lemming’s and just around the corner from Darwin’s. The blue-painted clapboard façade with its tiny windows at Danny’s might stand out by day, but by night it is the red glow of the classic neon “Schlitz on Tap” sign hanging over the door, in lieu of a sign for the bar, that lures they thirst Bucktowners like aphids to a bug light. A worn, navy-painted wooden door with “Danny’s” stenciled in white upon the glass is the only outward promotion of the bar.

Once inside Danny’s you may be surprised to find an interior more typical of a house than a Chicago bar, similar to that of Hideout and the now-defunct Lava Lounge. Where the foyer would have been is a smallish square bar just inside the door and on the right as you walk in, manned with two bartenders on the weekend so that you won’t have to worry about waiting too long for a cocktail while basking in the orange glow from the bare lightbulbs hanging over you. Danny’s doesn’t actually serve Schlitz on tap but rather from the bottle, along with Boddington’s from the can and a nice selection of wines by the glass. Red Bull & vodka drinkers will find themselves out of luck.

In addition to a few barstools, you’ll find seating at a tiny, candlelit table nearby with an even smaller table just to the left of the door, by a gumball machine. The bathrooms are located next to each other in the southeast corner of front room. Across from the bar is the DJ stand, from which the mood at Danny’s is established nightly. DJs spin an instrumental medley of electronica, yet quietly clubby music pulled mostly from rock, soul and jazz, which has been scientifically proven to make cocktails more enjoyable and yourself seem much cooler than usual. Next to the DJ stand is a short staircase that leads up to the backroom that consists of a very dark, smoky warren of semi-private alcoves decked out with minimalist décor and a few leather sofas and tiny chairs where a kitchen, living room and den once stood. Getting back to the bar for your next round can be a bit of a challenge as you’ll find bodies everywhere, so choose your spot wisely.

If you want a seat, get there early – very early (before 9pm on weekends). You’ll not want to get there during primetime as you’ll have to wait outside and be shushed by bouncers more than the guards at the Sistine Chapel, thanks to the ownership’s sensitivity to its neighbors as the bar lies smack dab in the middle of a sleepy neighborhood block. The place gets especially crowded for “Funk Night” on the first Wednesday of every month. The third Wednesday of eaach month features the increasingly popular “Danny’s Reading Series,” where readings are given by poets and authors from Chicago and further afield, including Peter Gizzi, Mark Strand, John Beer, Ray Bianchi, Arielle Greenberg, and Dan Beachy-Quick. Readings start at 7:30pm sharp and are followed by a DJ.

While many describe the atmosphere as unpretentious, they’re right as long as you’re wearing some form of dark lounge gear or retro t-shirt. A “too cool for school” attitude is a preferred option unless you happen to know some of the sensitive urban regulars. “Suburbanites on weekends only, please,” is the permeating mantra here, so leave the baseball hat and white gym shoes at home and don’t expect to find Golden Tee, a jukebox from which you can play your favorite 80’s metal, or even a television, chief.

According to Citysearch Chicago, Danny’s is owned by restaurateurs Michael Noon and Terry Alexander, who succeeded the original owner, Daniel “Danny” Cimaglio. It’s not clear when the ownership changed hands, which should come as a relief for those who love Danny’s as it hasn’t changed in over 10 years. Aside from a recent visit, it’s been awhile since I used to frequent Danny’s with a British womanizer we called “Nigel.” That wasn’t his real name, but we called him that anyway as it seemed more fitting. He was a short, balding Limey of Italian heritage who shagged women for sport – part of a complex that seemingly originated from a particularly harsh break-up with an American girl upon on the same night he moved to the States to live with her. Regardless, hanging out with him was always a laugh even though he would always “pull the birds” and I would wind up having huevos rancheros at Taco Burrito Palace #2. I’ve always liked Danny’s and try to stop by for a cocktail whenever I’m in the ‘hood.

In recognition of its efforts, Danny’s Tavern was the Editorial Winner and ranked #6 for Best Neighborhood Bar in the 2001 Citysearch’s “Best of Chicago” Poll and “Nodding to the beat of underground DJs at Danny’s,” was one of Chris Baty’s Top Five Chicago Bar Moments in Lonely Planet’s Chicago (2004). For more information, you’ll have to give Danny’s a call at the number above as they don’t have a website. Better yet, grab your favorite bowling shirt and head over to Danny’s. See you there, Nigel.

Photo courtesy of Carl Stumpf