After eluding me for 12 years there, out in the wide open (I have no excuse), I finally rolled into the L&L Tavern and found what is one of the last shot-and-a-beer joints on the North Side and dates back to Prohibition. L&L is lauded by many as the oxymoronic “Best Dive” in Chicago, thanks to a Stuff Magazine write-up a few years ago that not only put the tavern on the map but also continues to drive popularity from all the subsequent “me-too” articles written. Personally, I found the L&L Tavern to indeed be a dive worthy of elevated status, even with its somewhat uninviting first impression it leaves on many, thanks to its colorful barstaff, comprehensive Irish whiskey selection and economical beer prices.
L&L Tavern is located on Clark, two doors down from the northeast corner of Clark & Belmont. There, you’ll find a burgundy-painted wooden sign with the name of the tavern written in white cursive above a stony fa€ade and two windows, encased in glass blocks showcasing the latest Cubs support via neon beer advertising. Step through the battered, green wooden door with the small diamond window and you’ll find a matching battered wooden bar that runs the length of the south wall within this narrow, single-room space. Though sunny by day, L&L Tavern is very dark in its native state thanks to its forest green-painted interior and low lighting, and a classic, silver-painted tin ceiling found above. The d€cor is rounded out by a plethora of Pabst Blue Ribbon ads (the cheapest and most popular beer served at L&L), a giant unframed 70s movie poster across from the bar on the north wall, and more neon beer signs hung from a lattice partition in the back of the room that separates the bar from the storeroom. Frequent trips to replenish stock are made by the bartender back there – the ensuing flash of bright light when the bulb is switch on subtly tends to disturb the regulars at the bar, where the prime seating at the L&L is found. You can also grab a seat an old banquet hall-style chair at a smattering of low-slung tables or pull up a barstool at the ledge in front of the windows overlooking Clark, just as Jeffrey Dahmer did as he selected his next underage victim from the Dunkin Donuts across the street… While we’re on the subject of serial killers, it is also said the John Gacy came in at least once, donning his full, murderous clown costume.
“A dump extraordinaire, pass by to remind yourself that there is always someone worse off than you. It’s cheaper than therapy.”
– Shecky’s Bar, Club & Lounge Guide 2002
Photo courtesy of A.S. V. L&L’s claim to fame, outside of its dive-ish atmosphere, is the tavern’s surprisingly good selection of Irish whiskey, from the most popular, like Jameson, Bushmill, Michael Collins, and Tullamore Dew, to the lesser known Murphy’s, Middleton’s, Red Breast, and Knappouge Castle. All of the above are neatly illustrated in chalk upon the blackboard above the bar and next to the “Wait ’til Next Year” sign advertising the monthly whiskey special. If you like hard liquor but perhaps not Irish whiskey, you might want to check out Duke of Perth (Scotch), Delilah’s (bourbon) and Agave Bar & Grill (tequila), all of whom offer at least 80 varieties of their respective specialties in the same spirit as L&L. As is wise for many dive bars, there are no taps at the bar so L&L Tavern only features bottled beer, about two dozen in all: primarily domestics with a few mass-produced imports, as there are no taps at the bar. L&L is also one of the few bars in the country that actually serves Busch beer, and you don’t even need to “head to the mountains”… The effects of inflation are certainly being felt as the monthly beer special has risen from $2.00 to $2.50 to $3.00 over the past few years, but that’s still cheap in my book. Another special: I was there one night when liquor of an Absinthe-like bright green color, described as “40% coca,” was served for a somewhat less-than-economical $8.00 per shot and lime powder from a glass vial. Yours truly was given a free shot from the surplus after being ordered by a sucker at the end of the bar, and that’s how we like it! That night, my companions and I were also given a free drink, exchangeable at any time by way of an L&L Tavern poker chip – try that, Grand Central! For everything else, payment is cash-only and, if you’re hungry, L&L Tavern doesn’t have a kitchen but you may be fortunate enough to be visited by the Tamale Guy. Better yet, head over to nearby Clark St. Dog at Barry, Halsted and Clark when you need to cut those shots with some food.
For entertainment, there are two terrestrial TVs above the bar, so you can forget about your ESPN; you’re watching Jeopardy! by day—a free drink for guessing the Final Jeopardy question correctly—and WGN Channel 9 news by night. Deal with it. As the night wears on, the televisions are turned down and the jukebox takes over, filled with an eclectic selection of tunes, from the Buzzcocks to Naked Raygun to Johnny Cash, all played about 30 Decibels lower than anywhere else in Wrigleyville. The restrooms can be found across from the bar, where the mens’ is a rather awkward tight fit, with the pot too close to urinal, whereas the ladies’ is shockingly clean with a basket of free tampons, to boot. Now that the smoking ban is in effect, the joint has also become far more palatable for those that like a good dive bar but not the reeking of an ashtray the next morning, though this means that you might have to wait for the bartender to come back from their smoking break before you get your next shot of Powers to go with your PBR.
“It’s a haven from the ass clowns in Wrigleyville, the sloppy drunk prima donnas at Trader Todd’s, and the Big City Tap lowlifes.”
– Jonah P. on Yelp! (June 6, 2007)
Photo courtesy of Liza Pavelich
The current proprietor, Ken Frandsen, has owned L&L Tavern for 10 years and has preserved the name of his predecessors, Lefty and Loretta, after moving on from the much-loved Scenes Coffee House & Drama Bookstore at the corner of Belmont & Clark, which involuntarily yielded to Starbucks. Lefty and Loretta bought the place from Joan Gillon in 1985. According to her obituary in 2004: “Shortly after Joan Gillon got married, her husband, Paul, told her that he expected her to tend bar in his tavern. At first she balked at the idea, but she took the reins and ran the Chicago establishment for 53 years. ‘In the end, she was tough and could handle all kinds of situations,’ said her daughter, Susan. ‘In a neighborhood bar, you run into different things and problems with the people and she handled it all and she enjoyed it.’ Mrs. Gillon, 86, of Naperville and formerly of Chicago, the owner and operator of Columbia Tavern in Chicago, died Wednesday, April 7, in Edward Hospital, Naperville. Mrs. Gillon was born in Calumet, Mich., and grew up on a farm in Ontonagon, Mich. When she was 14 she moved to Chicago to live with an older sister and attended Lake View High School. After graduation she worked as a waitress in a restaurant at Halsted and Clark Streets. Her future husband owned a tavern a few doors down. After the couple got married, they became partners in Columbia Tavern, 3113 N. Halsted St., which they moved in the early 1960s to 3207 N. Clark St. For several years after her husband’s death in 1979, Mrs. Gillon ran the place. In 1985 she sold the business and retired.”
Today, L&L Tavern is a last bastion for neighborhood drunks, wayward Cub fans and is a top destination for the slew of nuevo-Bohemian poseurs with their tapered jeans and just old enough to drink who flock to The Vic for shows (it’s still “Punkin Donuts” across the street for under-agers). Employees from legendary alternative clothier, The Alley, also can be found at L&L after their shifts.
So, there you have it for L&L Tavern: an intriguing cross-section of humanity, from the “intentionally unwashed” to the occasional touring band (such as Chicago’s Alkaline Trio and The Lawrence Arms), all come for the cheap booze and the good juke, despite charges of periodic seediness and surliness. L&L Tavern has no website, so give them a call for more information. Hot mess!
“Keys to enjoying yourself at this establishment: skinny jeans scarf (even if 90 degrees out) black rimmed glasses holier than thou attitude lack of hygiene and ownership of comb/bush horrible taste in music Che Guevara or NOFX tee satchel with pins supporting your ’cause.’ If you even think of coming into this place, do your best to not wear anything that can resemble “new” or name brand. You will be silently judged and ridiculed if not sporting said hipster apparel. You must go dumpster diving, take up ultra liberal cause (eco terrorism comes to mind), judge all conformist for not conforming to their ideas, and have been to one ‘punk’ show recently even though real punk died quite some time ago. We use to have a name for these tools in high school: Nerds.”
– Mike T. on Yelp! (November 19, 2007)