Delilah’s is not a live music venue. It is a bar that rocks, even if it happens to be playing insurgent country, ska, mod, or R&B in addition to punk, metal and straight rock & roll. If you love a good bar, Delilah’s is sure to exceed your expectations. Though it may seem somewhat uninviting from the outside, you’ll find that the crowd inside is surprisingly laid-back and devoid of the usual meat-headedness in the area. The latter is especially impressive, considering that they stock over 400 types of whiskey – most of which are exceedingly strong. Hell, they even serve rye here. Delilah’s is easily one of the coolest bars on the North Side, giving Lincoln Parkers a bit of 1990’s vintage Wicker Park. Think of it as a cross between the crowd and attitude of Twisted Spoke and the neighborhood atmosphere of the Gingerman.
Delilah’s lurks on the east side of Lincoln, just south of where it intersects with both Diversey and Racine. The bar can easily be spotted with it’s name in large, gold-painted letters in Western script, above an awning that displays a Gustav Klimt-like painting of a reclining nude. A humble, hand-painted sign displays two different faces in a mirror: one that appears to be the Evil Queen from Snow White looking southeast (perhaps towards Gary, Indiana) and the other being more of a Cinderella-like character, meant to be Delilah herself from the biblical fable Samson and Delilah, who would be gazing northwest if her eyes were open. Delilah’s takes up the entire space within a two-story, wood frame structure that comes to a point at the top, right above a Duvel sign lit in red. The construction looks more like a house than a commercial building – how they haven’t torn it down is surely due to the success of Delilah’s.
“Finally a bar that’s busiest during the week.”– Digital City Chicago
Pass through the plate glass door protected with iron burglar repellant and you’ll be confronted by a rather large and burly bouncer. Though not as cavern-like as Katacomb or the first floor of fadó, Delilah’s is pretty dark and the doorman will check your ID with a flashlight long enough to also serve as a nightstick to educate anyone whose manners leave something to be desired. Delilah’s never charges a cover, so keep your wallet out only if you’re buying the round. The bar, in all its polished wooden glory can be found running along the north side of the room. Here, patrons try to focus on what to wet their whistle on while trying not be overwhelmed by the choice. A bevy of bottles helps illustrate the offering as does a rather large chalkboard advertising specials of the day just as they do at sister bar, Lincoln Tap Room, just up the street on Lincoln. Padded barstools provide a place to park it at the bar and a series of low-slung tables with black-vinyl chairs runs along the south wall. Above this hangs an expressionistic display of local artwork that rotates periodically (each piece is available for sale) and which is illuminated in part by string lights above it. A disco ball hangs in the balance, across from a pole that holds up the ceiling and partially thwarts those trying to get to the bar. A tiny lounge area can be found just beyond the bar. Here you’ll find an old green couch that someone clearly tried to throw away at one point, a black leather armchair, a glass coffee table, more artwork, and a waist-high ashtray. Occasionally the loungey furniture is moved aside and bands play. Otherwise, a couple of televisions throughout the bar provide entertainment for the throng (in addition to the entertainment that the throng creates all by itself).
A few additional tables can be found at the smallish windows up front overlooking Lincoln, just inside the door. Across from them is a portal, through which you’ll find a Galaga machine on your left, below a painting of Jesus at the Last Supper and across from a staircase that leads upstairs. Head up these dangerously steep and rickety wooden stairs and you’ll find another vault-like room with rather mundane black & white checkered linoleum juxtaposed with walls covered with surreal murals. Within these bizarre surroundings, you’ll find a small bar in the northeast corner that serves the room with a subset of the booze found downstairs and which has room for only a few high-backed, green-padded stools and the patrons seated in them. Across from the bar is a pinball machine and 1½ black & red leather booths. A red-felted pool table stands towards the front of the room, around which people congregate and sit upon an eclectic variety of furniture. A one-seater john can be found in the back, where you can peruse upcoming Delilah’s event listings as the pressure builds in your bladder (one of these recently depicted Ozzy Osbourne sitting on the can while giving the photographer the bird). The bathroom itself provides an outlet for expressing one’s self, in addition to relieving one’s self, as people have written some interesting things on the tiled walls.
The orange neon Maker’s Mark sign in the window should give you some sense of what can be found within. While the Duke of Perth has the market cornered for the best Scotch selection in the city, Delilah’s is proud to serve over 125 whiskeys and specializes in bourbon. In addition to the names you know, like Jim Beam, Wild Turkey and Knob Creek, you’ll find such impressive selections as Kentucky Pride (114.3 proof, aged 10 years), Eagle Rare (80 proof, aged 10 years) and Old Grand Dad (101 and 114 proof) – so try an “Elmer T. Lee & Coke” instead of the usual boozage. In addition, Delilah’s may be the only bar in the U.S. that serves Pisco Capel in the amazing Moai-shaped bottle, according to James Teitelbaum in his book Tiki Road Trip: A Guide to Tiki Culture in North America. Rum tastings have been held during some of these “tiki tours.”
Delilah’s also features over 135 beers, including one of the largest selection of Belgian ales rivaling that of Hop Leaf, the Map Room and Quencher’s, including such notables as Iron City (from Pittsburgh in a can), Hooper’s Hooch (England), Rogue Smoke Beer (US), Lakefront Beer Line Barley Wine (US), Le Fin du Monde (Canada), Skullsplitter (Scotland), Sinebrychoff (Finland), and Le Trappe Dubbel, Triple & Quadruple Trappist Ale (Holland). Delilah’s serves up 12 of these on tap and rotate seasonal beers in and out. All in all there’s over 400 bottles of booze on the wall, take one down and pass it around… While the selection is massive, it’s not as extensive as I saw in one Delilah’s review that amusingly proclaimed: “Afterall (sic) this joint offers over 2,000 beers. They’re actually in stock & the beautiful/pro/polite bartenders even find them easily! Also 400 whiskeys, 900 Scotches, 700 vodkas, 300 gins, 300 tequilas, 400 rums & over 500 cordials/liquers (sic).” If Delilah’s did have this amount of rotgut, the bottles would fill up the entire building. What’s equally impressive to the actual selection of firewater is that all libations are stocked behind the bar, with the kegs on the floor and the bottled beer kept in a large cooler at the east end of the bar. Both beer and whiskey specials are featured daily to go along with a revolving menu of DJ-managed musical selections.
The DJs at Delilah’s are some of the best in the city, including Jonboy Langford of the Waco Brothers and Chicago native Al Jourgensen of Ministry and the Revolting Cock fame. As a result, Delilah’s is usually hopping any day of the week. When the DJ isn’t spinning, a reflection of their material can be found on the jukebox, which was selected Best Jukebox by both The Official Chicago Bar Guide and the Citysearch: Chicago audience in 2001.
The vibe at Delilah’s, which has been consistent since the bar opened in 1993, is an interesting mix of gruff biker types, nuevo-punks featuring the latest in the tattoo and flesh piercing arts, dark gothic types who drink a lot of cider, normal yet adventurous types, and people with an alternative outlook on life in general. While a bit rough around the edges, the crowd is not as edgy as when the place used to be Crash Palace. Women tend to play the part of the femme fatale “Delilah” while plenty of Samsons fall prey to their charms (or would like to). The common bond? People that like to drink during the week – lots, late. People who appreciate quality music, whether it is punk, metal, old-school country or all of the above (especially after a concert at Metro if they’re not headed to aliveOne). People who like to pay tribute to rock and/or roots country eccentrics, such as Johnny Cash, Tammy Wynette, Mick Jagger, Ray Davies, Keith Moon, and Johnny Thunder on their birthdays. As such, Delilah’s operates in a spirit similar to the defunct punk/new wave palaces of O’Banion’s, Club 950 and Club C.O.D., as well as other current alterna-havens like Club Foot and the Lincoln Tap Room, located just a bit further up the block on Lincoln. Think of it as Chicago’s answer to the type of bar you’ll find in New York City’s East Village, blissfully devoid of the typical Lincoln Park pretension and obnoxiousness.
As with any joint that attracts a diverse crowd, you need to take care and watch your back. I’m not sure if the same people involved in the story you are about to read were the same ones hanging out at Delilah’s, but they may have been. Regardless, what happened is no reflection on anything related to Delilah’s but just happened to begin there… A close friend of mine, in town for the holidays from the Army, and I decided to drop by Delilah’s on Christmas Day as it’s one of the few bars in the city open every day (the Lincoln Tap Room and Deja Vu are also open 365 days a year). While I was taking care of some personal business in the can, my friend began talking to a girl sitting next to him. They seemed to got on pretty well and so, since it was a Sunday night and my friend needed as much female attention as he could get (masturbating four times a day can be somewhat excessive), I headed back to my apartment and left him to his own devices. This was a bad idea. I expected to hear him ringing the buzzer to my apartment sometime around 2am, after the bar closed, or maybe even around 4:00am if he went out late-night. Instead, I received a call from him around 7am – and my caller ID showed that he was phoning from his parents’ house in Glen Ellyn (45 minutes away without traffic, if he had a car). It turns out that when Delilah’s closed, he left with the girl to go to a late night bar along with several of her guy-friends. This is when the details get hazy… Apparently, he was flashing his Christmas cash around–$400 he received from his family as gifts–and this caught the attention of a group of contemptible males. As he walked out (it is not clear whether this happened within the bar or outside, and if this was the same group of guys accompanying the young lass or not), the band of letches surrounded him and demanded his money. Because he was both shit-canned and outnumbered, my friend coughed up his Christmas cash to avoid taking a beating. Fortunately, all they took was his cash and some of his faith in the Kindness of Man, and not the ability to breathe without pain. My friend then got into a cab–with no money–and attempted to make his way back to my place. The only problem was that he couldn’t remember where I lived. After circling around God knows what part of town, he gave up and told the cab to drive out to his parents’ place. At some stage, he passed out in the back of the cab before giving the cab driver more advanced directions than, “just get on 290.” The cab driver proceeded to take 290 until it ended, rather than take the fork in the road that led to 88 and west towards Glen Ellyn. After waking his ass up, the cab driver got the right directions and backtracked to my friend’s final destination. After an extended cab ride, he finally got home and then had to wake his parents, while still inebriated, and have them pay the cab driver $120 for the ride (fares are multiplied by a factor of 1.5 if you drive beyond the city and the immediately adjoining collar suburbs). At the end of this tragic episode, at least my friend was able to preserve the bone structure in his face even though his dignity was shattered.
If you like Delilah’s, you’ve got Mike Miller to thank, who is both owner and prototypical customer. His brainchild is widely regarded as the best rock bar in Chicago, even if some are put off by the rockabilly types. Locals describe Mike as the type of guy happy to chat with anyone at the bar about hootch or whatever else. He’s even crafted a well written article entitled Navigating The Water Of Life, A General Guide to Understanding the Malt. Miller has also throws one of the best parties during the annual “South by Southwest” rockfest held in Austin, Texas, which attracts a legion of Chicago musicos. The all-day bash is held on the Friday afternoon of the festival at the Casino El Camino on 6th Street and usually features three Austin bands. Word has it that the belly wash is free and features an “ass-load” of Texas brewskie, like Cellas, Live Oak, Real Ale and St. Arnold. Miller has also hosted such events as the Strong Beer Fest and Barley Wine Fest, back at the mothership in Chicago.
“Delilah’s is one of the few places in Chicago’s alternative scene that actually has a pulse.”– Excerpt from an unusually exuberant Shecky’s Bar, Club & Lounge Guide 2002, who also proclaimed:
“Shecky’s loves Delilah’s!”
Delilah’s is not a dive. It’s dark. It’s smoky. It has linoleum floors. However, its unparalleled bourbon selection, quality and selection of music, and widely varying crowd who all love Johnny Cash make Mike Miller’s creation a Chicago classic. It’s even one of the best places to catch Buffalo Bills games, for the love of God… In recognition of this, Delilah’s was voted one of five nominees for Best Neighborhood Bar in Citysearch: Chicago’s annual poll (even though the online guide classified the bar as a “dance club”). For more information, check out the Delilah’s website. Want some rye? ‘Course you do…