Editor’s Note: Like its neighbor Burgundy Inn to the south, Lee’s departed the space at Ashland and Diversey, yielding to yet another Irish Pub called “Four Shadows.”
On Chicago’s North Side, especially in the greater Lincoln Park and Lakeview neighborhoods, the local dive bar is facing extinction. Some, like Marge’s, Augenblick and the MaxTavern have gone the way of the condo. Aside from a dozen bright-eyed new tenants willing to shell out $500K for a flimsy lean-to made of cinder blocks face with a single layer of brick, no one really benefits from this – particularly boozehounds like ourselves. Others, like Durkin’s and Duffy’s have transitioned away from being a dump but lack much of their initial character that made them unique and which has made them now virtually interchangeable with two dozen other bars in the area. Proudly, Lee’s retains its dive bar status, in the tradition of Weeds Tavern, Mike & Ike’s, Crabbby Kim’s Bikini Bar, and the Skylight Bar and Grille just up the street, and is thereby refreshing without having changed at all.
Lee’s can be found loitering in the base of a red brick three-flat on the southwest corner of Ashland and Diversey . Also known to some as Lee’s Street and Lee’s Quarters, a martini glass sign and green awning simply advertise, “Lee’s.” Step through the wooden framed glass door in the daytime and your eyes will need a minute before they adjust to the darkness. Regulars sit upon barstools at the plate glass windows, observing Ashland Avenue foot traffic through thick wooden blinds, while more locals are perched at the bar that runs along the south wall. Here at the bar you’ll find Tecate served in the can and a few others on tap (remember: no dive bar worth its salt carries any of them newfangled microbrews).
In the main bar area, bright blue stuccoed walls with wooden paneling oddly compliment the ornate gold-painted tin ceiling and the brownish-orange ceramic tiles on the floor. On either side of the bar, avid darters will appreciate two regulation dartboards with one of them undoubtedly unoccupied at any given time. In the back, further recreation can be had on the blue-felted pool table, under the glow of a few neon beer signs and the intensely focused gaze of Jackie Gleason making a shot in The Hustler. Lee’s is also the only bar I know on the North Side of Chicago that actually has a poster of Comiskey Park, brazenly entitled “Miracle on 35th Street.” Perhaps they should write in “Debacle on 35th Street,” considering the park’s new name (which will not be stated here) and the Sox’ current record. In addition to the poster, in its unadulterated form, Sox fans may appreciate the placement of a payphone in the hallway, so that they can phone in their bet on the game to their bookies as the inspiration strikes. My advice: don’t bet on the Sox.
The crowd at Lee’s consists primarily of crusty neighborhood locals, and those that don’t mind tying one on in the early afternoon. Occasionally, some of the new condo-dwellers might wander in and sheepishly down a beer or two before they’re frightened away, while more adventurous types from outside the neighborhood may actually find some new friends eager to slur their jaded views on life if just given a chance. Whatever the case, it’s all in good fun.
While the names have changed over the years, with the cleverly named Tavern on Diversey being the most recent memory, Lee’s looks like it will hang on for a time. Even if it doesn’t, they’ll probably just change the name on the awning and it will be business as usual. My recommendation: have yourself an excellent meal of barbequed baby back ribs or snow crab at the Burgundy Inn, located just a few doors down the block to the south, and head over to Lee’s for a nightcap afterwards. Go Sox! (not)