Mickey’s snack bar

Editor’s note: Mickey’s Snack Bar, though never having been put up for sale, has been acquired by new owners who have chucked out the diner motif, “Snack Bar” portion of its name and the availability Mickey’s Big Mouth malt liquor beer, and have replaced them with a somewhat more sophisticated sports bar atmosphere (if such a thing exists) thanks to the designers at Ray Wray, and a nice selection of Mojitos. Have no fear: the legendary patio is even better with new tables, chairs and wooden sunscreen, and you can still find Mickey’s version of Sliders on the menu.

Though it’s only been around for a few years, Mickey’s Snack Bar has become a Lincoln Park institution and major hot spot for when the weather gets warm. Mickey’s not only has one of the best beer gardens in the city, topping that of even Sheffield’s, Cactus and Zella’s, but it’s also a great spot to satisfy that occasional karaoke urge and is the only bar that I’m aware of in town that serves Mickey’s Big Mouth malt beverages. Add to that an intriguing selection of pub grub, an eclectic atmosphere and the high-degree of local talent and you’ve got one of the best bars in all of Chicago.

Mickey’s Snack Bar is not to be confused with Mickey’s Grill & Pub (located north of Diversey on Broadway), Mickey’s Edison Park, or the establishments of the same name found in Williston, South Carolina and Westchester, New York. This “Mickey’s” is located at the northwest corner of Arlington and Clark Street, next to Galway Arms (formerly Rudy Fazuli’s) and just down the street from the Arlington House International Hostel, in the Park West section of Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood. Here, Mickey’s is housed in the base of a three-story building with thick, load-bearing and roughly-hewn stone walls. The entrance to both the bar proper and the beer garden can be found around the north side of the structure, where a couple of stone steps lead through a red-painted archway. Have your ID out and ready, as they card everyone, and tell the host where you’d like to sit and they’ll take care of it. Caution: if you’re visiting when the weather begins to turn warm, get there EARLY – the joint is as sure to be packed as Daley is to win the next election, and either you won’t be able to move or you’ll have to wait up to a few hours for a table.

While the interior at Mickey’s is quite notable (we’ll get to that later), the beer garden is the story at Mickey’s. Mickey’s can be heard about a half-mile away in the summer months, from the din emanating from its large outdoor patio. It is here that patrons from all over the city flock to, to assuage their thirst and hunger (both literal and metaphorical), when the weather improves. The beer garden itself features a couple of leafy elm trees growing through the cement, blue posts with yellow bulbs and “Snacks” written on them, and is elevated by a two-foot brick wall from the sidewalk and Clark Street. At the corner of this wall, passersby can view the menu, posted within a blue-painted wooden case that proudly advertises “EAT TILL 1 A.M.” in red neon (as that is the time the kitchen closes). Above the wall, a small yellow-painted, wrought-iron fence decorated with string lights helps to contain the inebriated horde and also separates the eating and drinking areas. The “eating area” is defined as the southern half of the patio that’s filled with low-slung tables and plastic yellow, cafeteria-like chairs. The atmosphere here is a little more laid back, and you won’t have to worry about getting bumped into as much. The “drinking area” is the northern half of the patio and is comprised of cocktail tables bolted to the cement floor and also features red-padded barstools that soak up an incredible amount of water after it rains (which will come back out onto your pants and down your leg to boot). This area gets filled up fast and can get pretty rowdy. If that’s too much for you, just head over to the crunchy floors of the Field House across the street – they don’t have a beer garden, but the windows open up and they serve free peanuts. Back at Mickey’s, if you’re there late into the evening, be forewarned: they begin to herd everyone into the bar a short time before 11:00 p.m., when the beer garden has to be closed by law (don’t worry, you can bring your drinks in with you).

To get back into the bar, just head back down the steps and through the large stone archway, where “EAT HERE” calls out those misfortunate enough not to be at Mickey’s. The inside of Mickey’s Snack Bar is a 50’s-style diner and bar hybrid. A long metal-topped, ceramic-tiled bar with a big jar of pineapple slices soaking in alcohol set upon it runs along the north end of the wall, just inside the main entrance. Behind it is a wall lined with what looks like the same silver insulation found on the sides of a caterer’s truck. Upon this plating, a series of glass shelves is mounted, which holds a bevy of booze, a bobbing head collection and a small model Chicago Police Department car – all of which is illuminated by neon orange thanks to the “LIQUORS” sign above. Patrons at the bar set their kiesters down on what looks like multicolored donuts at the west end of the bar, while those at the east end sit perched upon high-backed, red leather bar stools mounted to the floor. Across from the bar is the inevitable Golden Tee machine, in the southeast corner, above which hangs a star-like chandelier from a high, green-painted ceiling. Next to this are a couple of chairs and an exposed brick southern wall that features a retro painting of a waiter carrying a giant olive, and a red guitar mounted upon it that once belonged to Michael McDermott that was presumably obtained following the November 9, 2000 concert held to benefit the Midwest Brain Injury Clubhouse. Following my last visit to Mickey’s, I might be eligible for some type of support from this charitable organization. An interesting metal ceiling fan hangs over this area that features two smaller, electric fans instead of wooden blades.

When Mother Nature calls, just head beneath the mounted faces of the band Kiss, with their signature expressions and one their guitars that looks like an actual axe. From here, a hallway leads back to the kitchen and the bathrooms labeled “Sid” and “Nancy.” The men’s bathroom features black ceramic-tiled walls and a fine metal piss trough. If the main bar is too crowded or you’re eating inside (the only option in winter), a few steps lead up to the second room through another large archway. This room offers waitress service at a smattering of red red vinyl booths and low-rider tables with wooden chairs and a few giant, ottoman-like, pimento-stuffed olives on which to plant yourself. There is also a small counter that runs along the north end of the room with a full-size refrigerator placed at the end of it; I’m not sure if it gets used to serve patrons, but I did see some people sitting behind it during a karaoke session (more on that later). The walls are painted red and covered with posters of the Beatles, Elvis, the Rat Pack, Madonna, and other similar rock & roll ilk. The ceiling is a combination of retro silver plating and light fixtures, with a curved part in the middle painted green that holds a disco a ball and extends the effect of the arched doorway. At the east end of the room, both Jake and Elwood Blues are captured in statues behind chicken wire reminiscent of their gig at Bob’s Country Bunker in the Blues Brothers. Behind that is a window with Mickey’s olive logo that looks out onto the patio. Sports fans will appreciate the flat-panel television mounted upon the south wall and a few other televisions spread around the room and in the front room.

On Thursdays and Fridays, Mickey’s Snack Bar features some of the finest karaoke no cover charge can buy. “CUBAN SANDWICHES” is written upon the western wall and over the white padded area that serves as the backdrop for the karaoke stage, complete with free standing speakers and a television monitor with lyrics for the performers. Lyrics of songs are also scrolled across the TV in the southwest corner so that you can be sure to sing along. If you’re standing, watching the show, just make sure you’re not at the top of the stairs on the left side, as the hidden door behind you tends to fly open with surprising force. One night, I saw three girls sing “Baby Got Back” with accompanying dance moves that would make Too Live Crew blush, led by a former captain of the Luv-a-Bulls who knew every word (strange…). The DJ also got up and sang The Humpty Dance, which I found odd considering that this musical oddity is 15 years old and also because I had just heard the song played earlier in the day at Murphy’s Bleachers. I was also shocked to hear a surprisingly good rendition of “Only the Good Die Young” performed by a close friend of mine who, whenever he was heard singing previously, could make your hair curl more than a Nelson Reilly orgy.

The “Snack Bar” component of Mickey’s is a compilation of plays on words and references to Elvis Presley and various other musicians. It all starts of with an array of appetizers that includes: quesadillas, “Love Me Tenders” (chicken tenders smothered in buffalo wing sauce), guacamole, hummus, clams, calamari (pan fried calamari on their “signature calamari cake” with roasted red peppers and marinara), turkey soup with optional matzo ball, chili, and egg rolls filled with two tiger prawn shrimp. As your main course, you can choose from a selection of burgers, including the “Flaming Star” that is blackened and served with jalapeno jack and cheddar cheese, and a choice of turkey, chicken, hot beef, and tuna sandwiches highlighted by “The Elvis” – grilled peanut butter, banana and jelly served on raisin holly. If you order one of these, just remember: you get no fries with that. Instead, order them separately with your sandwich and you’ll get a basket that’s best shared with someone else. Slightly more sophisticated fare consists of such comfort food mainstays as meatloaf, chicken pot pie, fish & chips, macaroni & cheese, and jerk chicken (comfort food at least for Jamaicans). The more health-conscious may find the salads more appealing, which consist of the usual favorites (Caesar, Greek, Cobb, Waldorf) with slight twists to go along with names like the “Elvistotle Onassis” and “Polk Salad Annie.” As part of the grand finale, check out the Kentucky bourbon pecan pie or the smore brownie sundae made with vanilla ice cream, hot fudge, whipped cream and maraschino cherry. Mickey’s also features blueberry pie a la mode and key lime pie (suspiciously called “The Fountainbleu” as we all know that key limes are green…). Following a hard night of drinkin’, Mickey’s offers a smorgasbord of remedies: the standard eggs, bacon, sausage and pancakes, omelettes with a plethora of ingredients to choose from, “The ’68” (poached eggs on an English muffin with sausage patties, gravy, and peppered bacon – sounds effin’ good doesn’t it?), the “TCB” (the classic benedict), pumpkin waffles, and vanilla French toast. You can also choose one of two “sideburns” to go with your brunch that includes mashed potato cakes, roasted red pepper, biscuits & gravy, sausage patties, bacon, toast, English muffins, and assorted cereal. All of the above makes my stomach growl just thinking about it.

“If you’re tired of the typical 1950s-style diner chains that keep popping up across America, try Mickey’s Snack Bar on for size. While the atmosphere and decor definitely hearken back to the days of doo-wop and ducktails, the menu and the attitude are an eclectic combination of all the decades since. Like any good diner, you can rest assured the meatloaf, chicken pot pie, and a large selection of pies are on the menu. But, what you might not expect is a variety of ethnic foods like hummus, eggrolls, and quesadillas. The food is fantastic and nary an item costs more than $7.00. With high-quality food being served at more than reasonable prices, this is the kind of place that should make any loyal cheapster stand up and cheer.”

Mr. Cheap’s Chicago (2000)

As for the drinks menu, the beer selection consists primarily of “low-brow domestics” (according to The Official Chicago Bar Guide 2001), but does at least feature Mickey’s Big Mouth. For those of you not sophisticated enough to know, Mickey’s Big Mouths is a fine malt liquor beverage served in small green, grenade-like glass bottles that often explode like grenades when hurled against a wall afterwards. Even if the selection of brew does not inspire the imagination, the creativity and selection of cocktails is impressive. For example, the “Pink Cadillac” consists of Absolut Cintron with triple sec and frozen cranberry juice, the “Shake Rattle and Roll” is made from Finlandia vodka-infused Dole pineapples and is served in a martini glass, and the “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” is a mixture of Patron Silver, Grand Marnier, fresh sour mix and cream (just to name a few). You can also get a vanilla, chocolate or strawberry shake. My recommendation: order a couple-three Mickey’s Big Mouths to go with an order of “Sliders” – four little burgers somewhat larger and with less liver than the White Castle variety.

The former establishment at 2450 N. Clark Street was known as Jerome’s. In addition to the notable outdoor patio, which was dominated by a white-painted gazebo at the time, Jerome’s made its reputation on its healthy yet innovative American cuisine and comfort food that wasn’t cheap but wasn’t expensive either. According to Hanging Out on Halsted… and Chicago’s North Side (1993), “Jerome’s is an advocate of fresh, healthful food. They even bake their own pastries and whole grain breads. The menu offers entrees of baked chicken, broiled fish, pastas, and lots of vegetables, all prepared in an appealing way.” Sounds much like the fare you’ll find at Galway Arms today, located next door. Jerome’s also featured a fine “Bit of Everything” Sunday brunch for $10-$15, which Mickey’s continues in spirit.

Since 1999, Mickey’s Snack Bar rivaled that of John Barleycorn’s Memorial Pub, Ranalli’s (both locations), Goodbar, and Ravens as the most popular beer garden in Lincoln Park. The patio, with its great atmosphere and plenty of talent, is even as phenomenal as at the now-defunct Melvin B’s Truck Stop, and the intriguing selection of food is just as good as sister bar Stanley’s Kitchen & Tap – all of which are, owned by Jack Binyon, Donnie Kruse and Jeff Kalish. Combine with that the karaoke and diner-like experience on the inside and you’ve got a great place to go with Mickey’s whether it’s winter or summer. My recommendation: head over Mickey’s after work and experience the tranquility of the twilight hours or pull up a stool n the afternoon on the weekends. If you stay at Mickey’s until closing time but aren’t yet ready to head home, head up the street instead to Frank’s for some late-night cocktails or over to the Wiener Circle for a hot dog and a side of insults. Elvis has now left the building…

“Mickey’s stellar sidewalk cafe features Mojitos, a menu highlighted by their own version of Sliders, and as much eye-candy as you can handle. The diner look inside has yielded to blue suede booths and flat panel televisions, always tuned to Cub games. Nostalgia for Wrigley Field is further induced upon every visit to the metal trough in the mensroom.”

– yours truly as featured in Time Out Chicago’s TOC 100