Together with Cullen’s, Chief O’Neill’s, and nearby Johnny O’Hagan’s, the Irish Oak is one of the top Irish pubs in Chicago. “The Oak” offers an authentic feel of a country pub combined with the heaving throng you would find anywhere in Dublin’s Temple Bar District, particularly after Cub games. In a corridor chockers with sports and reggae bars, the Irish Oak provides Wrigleyvillains, and those lured to the area’s debaucherous charm, with hearty Irish food, a damn fine pint of Guinness, traditional Irish music on weekends and, overall, a true bit of old Eire in a town where inauthentic bars with Irish names are as common as corrupt city inspectors.
The Irish Oak is easy to spot along north Clark St., just south of Wrigley Field, with its half-wooden barrels mounted on the yellow-painted brick exterior and its wooden façade painted green. Come inside and head up the hardwood ramp (handicap accessible), and show your ID to the doorman. You’ll find a long room with stone floor tiles and a golden drop-ceiling. Seating is available in a variety of low-slung wooden tables to your right with padded booths and little wooden stools. If you’re hungry, have a seat in this area up front (avoid the stools unless you want to be jostled all night, except early in the week), and a waitress will be along to take your order eventually. If you’re really hungry, get something to eat beforehand, as the wait for food makes the wait for a properly poured Guinness appear short. The Chicago Bar Project recommendation: check out Matsuya for sushi two doors down to the south or the Pepper Lounge just around the corner on Sheffield. For those with a more patient nature, check out the fish & chips, Irish stew, corned beef sandwiches, shepherd’s pie, smoked salmon, or all-day traditional Irish breakfast – all of which is above average pub grub. Speaking of that magical brew from the Emerald Isle, the Irish Oak was rated recently as one of the top three pubs in Chicago for pouring the best pint of Guinness by the brewers of “the black stuff” themselves. Celtic Crossings and fadó represent the other two.
The main bar is to your left, curving outward in half-moon fashion as if to snag any patron foolish enough to walk by without ordering a pint for the journey through the hallway to the back bar. Unfortunately, service at the main bar is slow if you can even get to it, as it is always packed with credit card transactions slowing everything tremendously. There are several televisions in this middle area, but I suggest having a chat with one of the slurring Irishmen inevitably milling around and preying on American lasses who are suckers for the accent. You’ll find the “Whiskey Still Room” in the back, adorned with long, narrow whiskey barrels and a couple of copper stills. There is another bar here where it is significantly easier to order a beer and you might even find an empty barstool. More table seating is available along the side and a ramp leads down to the fireplace and additional wooden tables. Small bands also play in this area on Wednesday through Sunday. The main bathrooms can be accessed across from the bar and the world’s smallest ATM, and down the nicely wallpapered staircase. An additional, one-seater bathroom is inconspicuously located just to the left of the main bar, and is often surprisingly unoccupied.
A few photos from the inaugural Chicago History Museum Pub Crawl, “Erin Go Beer! Irish Pubs of Chicago”
The Oak not only offers all the classic Irish fare and drink you can handle, but also hires Irish waitstaff and everything found inside or outside the bar was imported from Ireland by owner Billy Lawless. Lawless used to own a pub in Galway and used the same Belfast designer create the feel of the Oak in 1998. Since then, Guinness sales along Clark have shot through the roof, and the Lawless family has no doubt counted their blessings for such an excellent location for an Irish pub.
As a rule of thumb, I am leery when a bar has to advertise things that should instead be known through word of mouth, like a “friendly” atmosphere or an “Irish” pub. However, the Irish Oak delivers on being a pretty good place to enjoy a pint. If you’re into crowds, head there after a Cubs game or on the weekend. A more conducive drinking atmosphere for pub aficionados is during the week, where you can even catch some live music on Wednesday or Thursday nights. Whenever you go, have a Guinness and make a toast to the old country. The Oak was also the third bar featured on the inaugural Chicago History Museum pub crawl, led by yours truly just before St. Patrick’s Day on March 15, 2007. For more information and details on upcoming events, check out the Irish Oak website. Sláinte.