Located in the former North End warehouse district, Joe’s joins Zentra, Crobar and North Beach as a sports themed entertainment complex. At Joe’s the theme is sports. You can watch just about any college or professional game wherever its playing, catch some live music on the weekends, and hang out in their huge beer garden in the summertime. Formerly Banana Joe’s, the new Joe’s draws enormous crowds, over a dozen college alumni clubs, and private parties for what seems to be almost every organization in Chicago.
During the week, the place is less crowded but on the weekend the place is a madhouse. If you get there after 8:00 p.m., expect to wait in a line to get in that can last up to an hour after 10:00 p.m. even though Joe’s holds up to 1,500 people. Once you’re fortunate enough to get in, pass through the corrugated tin poles and enter this 20,000 square foot, concrete floor, corrugated tin siding, green-painted brick expanse and up to the cash register. The cover ranges from $7 to $20 depending on whether there is a band or a special event. Walk down the red carpet, past the Golden Tee, to the beer tub girl.
If you’re there to get some food or to watch the game, have a seat in the front room. You can pull up a stool at the large bar, but I recommend taking a seat in one of the wooden booths. Each booth has a TV per side of the table, so that one can watch games or, if late in the evening, movies. All in all, Joe’s boasts over 100 televisions, 14 big screens and 14 satellite feeds throughout the bar. Joe’s supports 11 colleges, including ASU, Marquette, Oklahoma, Alabama, Florida, U of I, Indiana, Iowa, Miami, Michigan, and USC. Look up and you will see flags for all of these schools hanging from the rafters and there are fraternity paddles behind the bar. On a recent visit, I was shocked – shocked – to see a Northern Illinois University flag. While NIU is only an hour away from Chicago, and has tens of thousands of alumni in the Chicagoland area, there is not a single bar that supports the little Harvard of the Midwest. However, Joe’s will occasionally throw the game on one of their plethora of monitors, which is way more than one could expect. Kudos to Joe’s from a humble Huskies fan. Meanwhile, there are two dozen Michigan and Michigan State bars within a ten block radius. This is nothing short of shameful. Regardless, you can pass the time in-between sporting events by filling your belly with free popcorn or a standard selection of pub grub.
Beyond the front room is a long hallway leading to the back rooms and beer garden. The beer garden holds up to 200 and is an oasis of white plastic chairs in the summertime but doesn’t really offer much of a view. Off to the right is a back room that once held pool tables, but now serves primarily as an additional seating area for private parties and a break from weekend live music crowds, as well as cornhole (bags). This area is served by one side of the bar located between this room and the stage area. Bands play on a large stage in front of a space that holds hundreds. If you’re watching the band, my recommendation is go to the very north end of the room, in front of the back, back bar. Because everyone enters from the south end of the room, this area usually offers much more personal space. Additionally, if the band isn’t doing anything for you, take in a movie from one of three televisions mounted above the bar. On a recent visit, I watched a bit of Saturday Night Fever, Ace Ventura II and Tommy Boy all playing at the same time. For a break from the madness, watch the band from the balcony area; it is usually much less crowded, has several tables and a full service bar.
Bands playing include popular regional cover bands like Underwater People, Mike & Joe, Mr. Blotto, Common Ground, Then Again, and has-been rock acts like Night Ranger, the Outfield, Rick Springfield, and the Fixx. While these bands can be a lot of fun to see, if you’d rather spend a $10 cover charge to hear some excellent original music, head to the Empty Bottle, the Hideout, Underground Wonder Bar, Beat Kitchen, Elbo Room, Underground Lounge, or Double Door. On Sundays, the stage turns into a platform for four big screens that broadcast up to four NFL games. Fortunately, the sound is only on for one, including a Joe’s sampling of movie clips and stand-up comedy routines instead of network halftime reports. Additional big screens can be found along the east side of the room, and banks of smaller monitors run over the bars along the north and south ends of the room. Fans down a multitude of pitchers, all specially priced for game day, while seated at a sea of tables shoved together with just enough room for the waitress to whiz by.
Another popular band that regularly plays at Joe’s is Hairbanger’s Ball, who plays covers of 80’s heavy metal songs. Seeing them once a year is more than enough, as we did during Joe’s 2002 Annual Halloween Party. It was here that Lincoln Parkers encountered a costume never seen before. The vision for it, created by two friends of mine and myself, came out of our desire to create a costume that would be something all three of us could wear, would be something unique to Chicago, and something that no one would forget. What came to mind was one of the only local Chicago jokes the three of us had ever heard: What three Chicago streets rhyme with vagina? The answer: Paulina, Melvina and… Lunt. To create these costumes, we made several trips to Home Depot to buy conduit, Plexiglas, paint, chain, light fixtures, reflective tape, flashlights, Velcro, and electrical tape. Black hats, shirts and pants completed the costume. The picture below is the result of our demented imagination: three street lights, fully functional, with signs depicting each name prominently displayed. At a party other than Joe’s the weekend before, we won third place for best costume, although many came up to us afterwards saying that ours was the best original costume – damn Kiss and Slim Jim!!! At Joe’s, unfortunately, there was such a clusterfuck getting to the stage to be judged that we never made it and missed out on winning a trip to Jamaica. The winner was a costume of Animal (of the Muppets variety), which was at the other party but didn’t even place in the top three. Oh well, our memories of the costume will last forever. And for those of you who are or were confused, “Estes” is indeed a Chicago street and does rhyme with a male sex organ but does not rhyme with vagina, and Regina is pronounced “Re-geena.”
The crowd at Joe’s consists primarily of a homogenous Lincoln Park and suburban people in their 20’s and 30’s. You will find more khaki, flannels, sweaters and jeans than you can shake a stick at. The atmosphere at Joe’s is predominantly meathead with bad pick-up lines, unkind words, pushing and shoving, and occasional fisticuffs exchanged. One time, I almost got into a fight upon leaving Joe’s because one of the regulars called my date a bitch when his cheesy pick-up line said in passing was as ineffective as his judgment. Earlier that same night, I was kicked in the side of the leg by a still as yet unidentified assailant for no apparent reason. A friend of mine had the pleasant experience of being bitched out by a girl, whom he accidentally bumped, even after he offered to buy her a drink. One night I also observed a drunken woman trying to crawl onstage several times, each time being pushed back roughly into the crowd by security, while her boyfriend watched in amusement. These events are commonplace at Joe’s.
Service at Joe’s is as bad as the crowd can be. Waitresses rudely push through past patrons, service is incredibly slow at the any of the bars or tables, and on a recent visit the bartender at the back, back bar was miffed because I ordered four different shots. Not only did these shots come in tiny plastic shot glasses at the not so tiny cost of $4, but the bartender said sarcastically, “Oh, they all have to be different, don’t they?” I partially compensated when I obtained three free beers on the back bar (heh, heh). Beyond bad attitude and ineptitude, service at the bar is slowed even further by patrons paying for rounds with their credit cards. These cards tie up the bartenders as well as cover the floor with receipts that no one wants. A friend of mine wore a receipt-boa as he tried to get the bartendress to do a shot with him (she refused as she had to drive back to Naperville after her shift ended at 5:00 a.m.).
A night at Joe’s can be rather expensive with $7 for valet parking, $7 to $20 for cover, $3 for the coat check, $4 for shots, and even a bathroom attendant in the back bathroom that expects a tip for a paper towel and maybe a mint. What a tremendous value. While the bathroom in the front does not involve tipping, it is woefully inadequate for such a large room. Regarding the coat check, while it may cost you, it is better than having your jacket wind up in a puddle of beer on the floor like mine did.
Formerly Banana Joe’s, the place was opened in 1996 as a tropically-themed dance club. Banana Joe was a fictional character with a wide-brimmed hat, sunglasses and a soul patch. The bar itself was part of a chain with locations also found in Columbus, Buffalo, St. Louis, and Miami. Now, the bar is owned by a University of Illinois alumnus and now resembles a giant version of Kam’s (where the amount of beer spilled on the floor is measured in inches).
If you can stand the bad service and meathead crowd, Joe’s is a great place to see a game. For more information, check out Joe’s website. If Joe’s is your bag, check out its Wrigleyville brethren Cubby Bear. High five, man.