Lilly’s is one of the coolest Lincoln Park bars you’ve never heard of. This New Orleans-styled, rhythm and blue joint has been around since 1981, when Lilly herself purchased the bar, formerly Colette’s, with then-partner Steve Kovalec, who sold out his half around 2000. Compared to rowdy neighbors like the Gin Mill, Irish Eyes and Bordo’s, Lilly’s is a unique oasis with its laid-back, almost romantic atmosphere, and live music on most nights of the week. You will not find any televisions, pool tables, darts, or Golden Tee machines. If you are looking for these things, head to bw-3 across the street instead.
What should instead be known as something like the “Kasbah,” Lilly’s has arched doorways, stucco walls, twisting staircases, French windows that open out during summer, red brick floors (once so uneven that it had a feel reminiscent of the rolling hills of Spain), and a labyrinth of seating nooks that all invokes somewhat of a Moroccan feel – even with the lawn furniture-type tables and chairs. Rumors, eat your heart out. As you walk in, bouncers that look like they aren’t even 21 will check your ID. The old wooden, quadrangular bar anchors the center of the room and serves patrons at every angle. A tiny elevated stage that is often not large enough to hold all the members of the band (thus, they have to stand on the floor next to patrons) lies opposite the bar. Seating at the bar is available at a smattering of red barstools but can at times be uncomfortably close to the performers. The best spot on the first floor is to grab one of the tables by the windows overlooking Lincoln, located just inside the door. Alternate seating on the first floor offers an obstructed view of the band.
A few important notes: firstly, Lilly’s only has a one-seater, unisex-by-default bathroom that harkens back to days of old when people called the john a “wash closet” or WC. When you’ve finished, you’ll need to pull the handle, which is located on the ceramic tank mounted on the wall, just below the ceiling. Secondly, the condom machine on the bar either doesn’t work or is empty. This proved to be a $1 lesson one night. The cost was not recouped directly due to an unsympathetic barmaid, but was later compensated for with a free round of lemon drop shots. Also of note are the black and white cowhide bar stools at the north end of the bar, and the giant, red-sequined shoe located just beyond the bar that looks as if an Amazon version of Dorothy accidentally left it there after grooving to some blues, drinking beer out of a plastic cup and imbibing an obscene amount of Jagermeister.
When it comes to music, Lilly’s hosts a variety of blues, funk, and rock bands throughout the week from Wednesday through Sunday. Lilly’s often does not charge a cover, so if you like the band, drop some cash into the tip jar. If they do charge a cover, it’s usually less than $5. Good bands that I’ve seen there include Forty Piece Choir, Bad Cat and Fat Time. The best place to watch a band is from the balcony on the second level, in either the ice cream parlor chairs, at the picnic table or in one of your grandmother’s sofas – of which there are many. Access to the balcony can be gained from one of two, red-painted rickety stairways. The first is located right as you walk in. People ascending this staircase can be seen through the archways above the band. A second, curving and somewhat treacherous staircase, can be found mid-way along the east wall, just next to the bar. It appears that at some point, Lilly’s was a two-floor building sans balcony. Then, some enterprising soul cut out part of the floor (notice the lone radiator against one of the windows above the stage) and mounted a swordfish on the wall to boot. It also once appeared that the building was abandoned for some time, as evidenced by the build up of bird guano on the ceiling fan. The fan has since been replaced by a chandelier and the whole place has been given a fresh coat of green paint. Because of the layout both upstairs and down, Lilly’s is probably the best place in Chicago to have sex in the bar without being disturbed as secluded alcoves in the corners provide intimacy and the employees rarely venture beyond the bar.
The place attracts a fairly young crowd, seemingly underage at times, that includes neighborhood types during the week, and bar-hoppers, suburbanites, and the occasional wayward tourists on the weekends looking for a good blues club. On one night I was there, the bar hosted someone’s “21st birthday party,” but I swear not one person there was over 18. However, the doorman, who informed me that there was no cover that evening but a “suggested” donation of $5, looked like he may have been pushing 19. Whatever the case, he was obviously too young to be handling the money: “I might have change for a $20,” he said as he whipped out a wad of about $400. Between the cute, skinny girls and awkward teenage boys that couldn’t handle more than a beer or two, I figured I’d end up in jail if I didn’t leave. So, I slammed my Foster’s oil can (they ran out of Budweiser, which I didn’t think was even possible), and headed to a place I could handle – Deja Vu.
The bar has plenty of beers available, and seems to have a disturbingly prevalent Jagermeister presence (notice the 12-foot long banner above the bar, and the Jagermeister cooler behind it). To top it off, the bar also sports a bust of Elvis. As Lilly’s does not serve food, I recommend dinner at bw-3 across the street, and then drop by Lilly’s between 9 and 10 p.m. to take in some good music and a Leinie’s Dark. For more information, check out Lilly’s MySpace page. Mmm-hmm…