Located at the six-corner intersection of North, Damen and Milwaukee is a concert venue that once staged shows for the Smashing Pumpkins and the Rolling Stones, and today hosts some of the best local, regional and national bands in the country. I’m not talking about the United Center, the Vic Theater or even Metro. I’m talking about the Double Door in Wicker Park. The Double Door is in a league of bars that includes the Empty Bottle, the Hideout, and the Elbo Room. All of these bars offer patrons a great place to have a drink, observe some very interesting people, and hear some excellent bands.
The Double Door takes its name from having two separate entrances (rather than having a set of large wooden double doors). In actuality, patrons can only enter the premises from the Damen entrance, just below the North/Damen Blue Line El stop. The other glass entrance on Milwaukee is solely for bands loading and unloading their gear (the band entry/exit is cordoned off to the left of the band, and if you try to exit through there like I did, you will be firmly rebuffed).
When you walk in, be sure to have your ID ready for bouncer #1, and your $5 to $15 ready for bouncer #2. After turning the corner just beyond the entrance, be prepared to take in the main room of the Double Door, which looks like a giant Underground Lounge with its black-painted ceiling, floors and walls. The interior is so dark that the neon Red Hook, Budweiser and Bud Light signs burn the retina. There is a coat check to your immediate right ($1 per article) that usually has a place where you can get on the band’s mailing list. Above the coat check is a smallish balcony area, and the johns are to the right on the main floor. On a recent visit, there was a massage therapy couch and one very bewildered masseuse across from the coat check, as part of a promotion. On your left is a long, meandering bar with a mural depicting classical nudes and a large mirror. Several black-lit coolers are located just beyond the bar, conveniently blocking your site line from the pile of equipment cases piled haphazardly behind them.
There is a large area in the middle of the room comprised of the sound booth and stairs leading downstairs. The wooden stage is located at the far end of the room and holds even the largest of bands. There are a few tables near the slender black columns blocking sight lines in front of the stage, and also along the right side of the room. The badly wood-paneled wall on the right by the tables is adorned with blue beveled lights, giant white-painted swirlies and a door leading to the second ladies’ room. The heavily pierced, black clad, second sound man (read: sound man wannabe) was observed relieving himself in this second ladies’ room every fifteen minutes (ladies, beware).
Downstairs, the Double Door offers patrons a black brick den with three maroon-felted pool tables (complete with maroon chalk), a small bar, Galaga and Millipede arcade machines, a few loungey chairs, tables with little white candles, and a well-worn sofa. To the left of the main staircase is the “red room” where muzos and groupies hang out (don’t get any delusions, its nothing special). The best thing about the downstairs is the semi-hidden staircase all the way in the back on the right. If you ascend this rickety creation, you will find yourself emerging at the very front of the stage on the right hand side, which is perfect for getting in front of the throng without having to push your way.
The Double Door is a lot like Martyrs’ but with bands that could really make it big. The Double Door has hosted acid jazz pioneers Liquid Soul (formerly every Sunday, following their stint at the Elbo Room, but now only occasionally on Sundays), the Flaming Lips, Rollins Band, Local H, Smashmouth, Nash Kato (of Urge Overkill), Veruca Salt, Light FM, and many others. Mondays feature DJ Jesse de la Pena and his “Blue Groove Lounge” (also formerly at the Elbo Room and the Funky Buddha Lounge), and bands take the stage every other night of the week. To top it off, the Rolling Stones played a surprise show at the Double Door in 1998, around the same time the Smashing Pumpkins also played a surprise show as the “Turnips.”
As with most of the better venues in Chicago, the crowd is a funky mix. I’ve seen a girl with a star shaved into her head, jean jackets, sweatshirts, blue leather, spiky hair, and a girl with a red furry jacket – the same one I pawed at the now-defunct Lyons Den.
“The stench of cigarette smoke and stale beer emanates from its walls in much the same way that oil shines on an adolescent’s face and every so often you get he-bitch man-slapped with some unnecessary attitude, but it’s all part of the charm.”– Shecky’s Bar, Club & Lounge Guide 2002
Simply put, the Double Door is one of the premier places to see some of the most excellent bands around. This is especially interesting in that the Double Door replaced a dive bar called the Main Street Pub, which specialized in country music, hillbilly-wannabe patrons, Sly Stallone pictures, and beer served in the can. As The Official Chicago Bar Guide (1994) described it, “Not a good place to discuss Nietzsche.” It’s claim to fame: being filmed in the Patrick Swayze film, Next of Kin (1989). Back then, liquor was sold out of the east side where it was called, “Double Door Liquors,” which explains the red neon sign of the same name still seen today. The joint was a liquor store and bar all the way back to the 1940s, when it served as a rooming house. For more information on Double Door, check out the Double Door website. I am a golden god!