Photo courtesy of Susannah Shepherd
Like a corner tavern straight out of Twin Peaks, Marie’s Riptide Lounge is a timeless gem that stands out in a neighborhood filled with unique, charismatic bars. The Bucktown Pub has its nasty apparition, Lottie’s Pubhas its long and lurid history, andCharleston has its gothic obscurity, but Marie’s Riptide has them all beat on depth of character. After all, Marie’s is the same as it ever was since its doors were opened for business in 1961. The diner-like interior, the staff with their 70+ years of tavern operation experience between them, many of the Polish regulars found in the early hours, and even the electronic skeet shooting game have all been there from day one. And if that wasn’t enough for you, Marie’s Riptide joins the Green Mill, the Redhead Piano Barand Deja Vuas one of the best late-night bars in the entire city.

In a meeting of the “-ages,” Marie’s Riptide Lounge stands at the corner of Armitage and Hermitage, almost smack dab under the Kennedy Expressway. A modest black and white sign in retro script compliments the wall constructed from beige stone slabs and the quadrangular window set within it, located at the base of a three story, red brick building. Stepping through the door, you’ll find yourself transported into a bygone age. An elliptical, recessed ceiling along with string lights shed a bright glow throughout the room. A worn red rug, placed over a white linoleum floor, stretches down a narrow aisle that separates a row of white leather-padded booths that line the eastern wall and a long, linoleum-topped wooden bar that runs along the west. Behind it, you’ll find a Chicago cultural institution: Marie Wuczynski. Marie, in her 70s, owns this spotless and well kept bar, lives above it and is the chief barmaid. She can be easily spotted with her high white hair, faded blue shirt and jovial nature. If she takes a shine to you, she’ll call you by your first name, have your next drink for ya before you’re ready for it, spin a yarn to wile away the time, throw back a shot of Jägermeister with you, sing along with the juke, and she might even do her famous five penny magic trick topped off with a wet willy for good measure. If you’re particularly lucky, you’ll also find the electronic skeet shooting game operational. Marie will hand you the solitary-buttoned paddles and you can go to town shootin’ skeet as they dart across a large black panel on the front wall. Along with Marie is Shirley, her co-worker of 30 years, bedecked in her finest Hawaiian shirt. Both of them dispense a limited selection of bottled beer (no taps) and bags of chips (no kitchen) amongst shelves of booze, wooden coolers, a back bar filled with porcelain dolls, plates and an empty aquarium built into it, and Eisenhower era appliances and fixtures. Marie and Shirley are also well known for their holiday decorations, especially around Christmas when the place features a “snow-covered” bar and more red and green than Kermit the Frog caught in a meat grinder, and Valentine’s Day when paper hearts fill up the room creating one of the city’s biggest fire hazards.

“Marie didn’t come to Bucktown – Bucktown came to Marie”

Shecky’s Bar, Club & Lounge Guide 2002

Photo courtesy of Jim Newberry
A hoopla of hipster, night owl patrons sit opposite the bar marveling at the longevity of the barkeeps, the astounding capacity of their livers, and the overpowering sex appeal of each other as seen through thick sets of beer goggles while listening to the Rat Pack, Carpenters, Petula Clark, Englebert Humperdink, Bobby Darin, Wayne Newton, Patsy Cline, and Elvis Presley on the jukebox that stands by the door. While Marie’s doesn’t have live bands, Little Richard(known as Chicago’s Polka King, not the one of “Good Golly Miss Molly” fame) used to perform regularly in the 1960’s when a stage was located up front, sometimes even with Marie singing along. Marie’s has also played host to Davy Jones, JFK (allegedly) and Conan O’Brien who filmed part of his show in 2000 at the bar (like at Resi’s Bierstube) – just ask Marie to see the tape.

The best time to get to Marie’s is around midnight, where chances are good that you can snag a booth or a seat at the bar. If you get there late and the place is packed, check out the back room. For years, I didn’t even know this area of the bar existed until a friend of mine pressed Marie to open it up one night. She finally relented as you could barely breathe given the crush of bodies. What we found back there was a linoleum paradise awaiting our presence. Here, those exiled from the front will find a smattering of tables with cafeteria chairs along the west side of the room. The atmosphere is darker thanks to the décor, consisting of oddly patterned red wallpaper, additional worn burgundy rug, a speaker taken off of a naval vessel, a non-operational Golden Tee, and a smudged mirror at the back. One unisex washroom provides some relief when nature calls.

While Nick’s, Estelle’s (unofficial sister bar – my own designation), Carol’s Pub, and Tai’s Til 4 all have earned their due, Marie’s Riptide is the best 4am bar in Bucktown and the ideal place for a nightcap after a torrid drinking rampage. If you can score a booth, you’ll never want to leave as those around you are always up for a bit of a chat and Marie & company will take care of you as best as you’re going to find. When you do decide to head home, just make sure you leave before the bulk of the crowd gets kicked out as it can be a bitch to find a cab. In addition to a surreal Super Bowl Sunday shenanigans, Marie’s reminds me of the time I ended up there after a Miller-Lite soaked evening polishing the gutters at the now-defunct Marigold Bowl. While the scores were not memorable, the wagering afterwards was. I bet a friend that I could hit more pins than he could by rolling the ball from behind the scorer’s chair (as you do). I bowled a strike and he rolled it straight into the gutter. This was of course followed by a double or nothing bet and you can guess the results: I promptly rolled a gutterball and he threw the strike that earned himself the quickest $20 he ever made. I did my best to erase the memory by drinking a bevy of Old Styles over at Marie’s.

Upon opening Marie’s shortly after Hawaii became a state, “…she wanted to give it a Hawaiian theme. She was planning on flowered shirts, leis and drinks with umbrellas. But there ended up being nothing tropical about the bar named for a wave. ‘I went Polish instead,’ laughs Wuczynski. In the beginning, polka bands played several times a week for regulars from the neighborhood. (A large beer cooler now occupies the former stage.) The live music, which lasted for decades, was just one of the ways Wuczynski entertained. She would sing, tell bawdy jokes and perform magic tricks too… Bill Murray and John Belushi were regulars in the ’70s. Andy Richter showed off Marie’s Rip Tide Lounge on ‘Late Night with Conan O’Brien’ in 1997,” according to Melissa Horwitz in “A barstool’s her throne; For 45 years, celebrities as well as locals have paid homage to the queen of Marie’s Rip Tide Lounge” article in the Chicago Tribune (October 22, 2006).

In recognition of its far-reaching appeal, Marie’s was filmed in an episode of the 80s drama Crime Story (in addition to Late Night with Conan O’Brien), and was the subject of songs by Robbie Fulks (Marie’s Riptide) and Michael McDermott (20 Miles South of Nowhere).

While the march of time continues, you’ll find a different story inside at Marie’s. The music, unusually set to non-oppressive levels compared to other bars around the city, is smooth and facilitates and endless flow of conversation. Add to that the charm of Marie and her cohorts, a legacy that exceeds 40 years, the lack of a cover, dress code and pretension, and a coveted late-night liquor license, and you can’t go wrong at this neighborly Bucktown tavern. However, you must be careful. Any night that encompasses a visit to Marie’s can end up with you flailing helplessly on a proverbial riptide carrying you out to a murky sea of drunkenness. My advice: experience the 40s by having martinis and a Sicilian family-style dinner over at Club Lucky, check out the eye candy at Cortland Garage, avoid all bets that involve rolling a ball, and then close out the night with a bit of mod over at Marie’s.

“Aging but comfortable”