“Since 1992, a cat-ridden hole in the wall club”
The Empty Bottle is a crazy dive, in an even crazier part of Chicago known as the Ukrainian Village. Arguably, the Empty Bottle provides some of the best alternative rock and jazz in the city, giving places like Metro, Double Door, the Hideout, and the Elbo Room a run for their money. The Empty Bottle is the place for great music, cheap beer, funky scene, and one of the few places in Chicago where you are likely to see the next big alternative band.
In this neighborhood, The Bottle may be difficult to spot from the outside if someone suggest that you just look for the bar with the Old Style sign hanging out front, as Western Avenue is peppered with them. These glowing beacons in the night are generally used in lieu of the bars’ actual name. Why? Probably in the not too distant past, most of these bars where purely drinking dens and did not have much in terms of personality and all you really needed to know was that they served Old Style. Located at the corner of Western and Cortez, the Empty Bottle sports its own Old Style sign with the addition of eclectic swirlies painted upon it, and is complimented by a neon Pabst sign in the window. Chicago beer aficionados will especially appreciate the fact that both beers are indeed available inside.
As with most places in the Ukrainian Village, the Empty Bottle does not look like much from the outside. The maroon awning advertises “DANCING” and “FRIENDLY” over a yellow brick facade with only a few small windows through which, from the inside, you can gaze at the looming, gothic brick Commonwealth Edison station across the street. If you look very closely, you will be able to see the actual “Empty Bottle” sign on the corner and above the awning printed in black on red.
It is difficult to determine from the outside how big the Bottle is, and how “friendly” it might be. The bar is actually quite spacious and can handle up to 400 people, although some think this number is wishful thinking. As a rule of thumb, I am leery when a bar has to advertise things that should instead be known from word of mouth, like a “friendly” atmosphere or an “Irish” pub. As far as whether the Empty Bottle is actually “friendly,” more on that later… On the other hand, we can say this at the very least: the MWA (Mobility with Attitude) website proclaims the Empty Bottle to be not only wheelchair accessible, but also wheelchair-friendly as it is quite easy to get around in for our metal wheeled-friends.
“It’s perfect for the partier who didn’t take their medication and can’t decide what to do.”– Shecky’s Bar, Club & Lounge Guide 2002
When you walk into The Bottle you’ll see an entryway in which a lighted whiteboard promotes all upcoming events for the next month in glowing fashion. I found this rather impressive, as most bars don’t even know who they’re going to book two weeks out. Step through the second glass-paned metal door and you will be greeted by the doorman. The cover charge ranges from cheap ($3-8 during the week) to a bit more ($15-20 on weekends), but at least you get a few bands’ worth of music. Behind the bouncer is a photo booth where many past patrons have taken pictures now pinned up behind the back bar. The rest of the front anteroom is like a combination arcade and family rec room. There are arcade games, pinball machines, an ATM, video poker, Golden Tee, an ancient upright piano, and a pool table surrounded by worn couches without legs. Beyond the front room are a few cavern-like rooms with red-velvet draped doorways, also with arcade games and additional loungey seating. The bathrooms are located in this area and ladies, if you’re lucky, you’ll get the stall that has a sink in it. “Toys” and love kits are also available. How convenient.
Step through the front room and off to your right and you will come to an uneven, cracked linoleum expanse with exposed brick walls where you can watch the band. The three foot, elevated stage is located in the southeast corner of the room and is somewhat on the small side if one has more than four people in the band. The stage’s acoustic treatment is rather interesting, with its drapes of many colors and foam crate packing that someone haphazardly nailed to the ceiling. Directly opposite the stage and smoke-filled haze is the Bottle’s one table and long wooden bar. The room is decorated with multi-colored string lights and an eclectic collection of colored light fixtures that hang from the ceiling. Also noted was the side door of a Chicago Police Department squad car in the southwest corner of the bar. I wonder how they got that…
The bar itself boasts numerous beers including $1 bottles of Huber Bock, $2 bottles of Point Special (a special beer for “special” patrons), Pabst, and Old Style, and other more “popular” types of beer on draft and in bottles priced at no more than $3.50. Several wines, Scotch (including one of my favorites: Laphroaig), and t-shirts for $12 are also available. Behind the bar are blue beveled lights, a television that is mostly kept off, artwork celebrating the Empty Bottle, a stuffed fish with a skull & crossbones flag in its mouth, and a few instructional signs. One says, “Respect your bartender,” and needs to be heeded as they do a very good job of making sure there is enough social lubrication flowing without long bottlenecks. Another other says, “Respect your ears,” accompanied by a sign hocking ear plugs for $1. My question is, why would a bar sell ear plugs instead of keeping the volume somewhat short of deafening? Well, it’s really not that bad… Finally, another sign instructs: “No cigar smoking” and “No cloves either.” Beyond the bar is a bookcase with several shelves of free entertainment periodicals for the patron desiring to appear aloof and intelligent.
The crowd consists mainly of early 20’s, scruffy, skinny, alterna-types wearing clothing found either from The Alley or the Salvation Army. Some people are friendly, while others can be seriously annoying poseurs. Some are stoned, some are drunk, some are on something else entirely, and some are naturally weird. Some really appreciate the music, while others just try to look cool by being there and don’t really get into the music at all. Although I did not get this sense, one posting on Centerstage Chicago referred to the crowd as a “snob-a-torium,” so you never know what you’re going to get as the horde varies per act. Overall, it’s a pretty good atmosphere, although due to the high caliber and alternative variety of music, the place can get really packed. I recently went on a Tuesday night and it was the largest crowd I have ever seen in a bar in Chicago on any Tuesday night (band or no band). The draw was so large in the beginning, that the Bottle had to move from its former location down the block in 1993 to its present locale.
“The Empty Bottle originally opened in 1992 in a ‘midget wrestling bar,’ according to owner Bruce Finkelman. It moved a block over in 1993 to its current location, formerly The Friendly Inn. ‘Friendly’ remained on the building’s old black awning, which Finkelman recently replaced—but with ‘friendly’ on it. Despite its name, the place had a bad reputation. ‘It was known in the neighborhood as ‘the bucket of blood,” Finkelman says. ‘From what I understand, there used to be gun fights in there and knife fights, and at the end of the night when they were cleaning up, they used to pour out a bucket of blood.'”– excerpt from Kyle Ryan’s article, “Remembering the ‘Bucket ‘o Blood” on Decider Chicago
(September 10, 2008)
As far as the music, the Empty Bottle is the closest thing Chicago has to New York City’s CBGB or Knitting Factory thanks to the efforts of owner and talent scout Bruce Finkelman. Bands play music that can truly be described as alternative as it is indeed very different and has a great edge to it. Such bands who have played at the Bottle include: Babe the Blue Ox, Dianogah, the Flaming Lips, God and Texas, Kyuss, Morphine, My Life With The Thrill Kill Kult, Railroad Jerk, the Smoking Popes, the Sea and Cake, Veruca Salt, and Zen Guerrilla (just to name a few). Of the two bands I saw recently, one didn’t even sing and the drum kit was placed backwards at the front of the stage so that the drummer’s back faced the audience. They played spacey rock jams for about an hour. The next band was actually a spoken word / rap singer (of the Liquid Soul type) and he was accompanied only by a keyboard player. Other standouts I have seen at the Empty Bottle include Califone – an impressive five member band, each of which plays at least two or three instruments resulting in an extremely cool, sometimes mellow, sometimes rockin’, and always eclectic variety of original songs – and Light FM – a mellow, spacey, very cool band offering excellent lyrics and an impressive depth of talent between three guys. If that’s not your bag, don’t worry about it. Every night, literally offers something completely different. The Bottle even hosts the Annual Festival of Jazz and Improvised Music every May. Overall, the sound of the place is in such demand that the Empty Bottle has started its own record company called Tug O’ War Records, which sells CDs made from live recordings of shows there. Shows start around 10:00 p.m. and there are usually three bands playing each night of the week.
A night at the Empty Bottle can be an adventure – a dive bar in a dark part of town, an unusual cast of characters as fellow patrons, and excellent original music. My advice: check out the nearby Inner Town Pub or Sweet Alice for a drink beforehand, or Bite next door for something to eat (BYOB), and stay late into the night with the eclectic sounds of the Empty Bottle. For information on upcoming shows, Tug O’ War Records, or whatever else, check out the Empty Bottle website. Oh, and the Empty Bottle even sports a Golden Tee machine in their anteroom. Something for everyone. Kind of.