Okay, I admit it, I was afraid. I had passed Rossi’s Liquors at least a hundred times and not breached its entryway once. It was not rational, like fear of fire, but an irrational one, like my unease around silver or gold-painted street mimes. Maybe it was the window-less, reinforced-steel door that seemed uninviting. Maybe it was the decades of street soot that cover the façade like an old coat of paint. For whatever reason, I had given Rossi’s a pass every time I passed. So, it was with the aim of conquering my fears that I paid Rossi’s a visit (with the aid of some trusty back-up). Ten minutes later, my misconceptions eroded, I felt like I had been going to Rossi’s for ten years.
Rossi’s history goes back 50+ years* in Chicago’s River North neighborhood. Time has taken its toll on its looks, but like people, it’s what’s on the inside that counts. If the exterior is a bit foreboding, the interior is down-right homey. The lighting is dim, but not intimidating. The décor, from tables to bar to floor, is a uniform dark wood that is excellent for long life and hiding stains. The curved bar hugs the north wall, taking up perhaps a third of the floor-space. Including the bar, a few built-in tables with stools allow seating for perhaps 30. There is standing room in the back, but during rushes, Rossi’s can become quite cozy. There is an electronic dart board, a couple of TVs and a 100,000 song internet jukebox for entertainment, but in my opinion, the star attraction of Rossi’s is Desiree.
Desiree has been presiding at Rossi’s since the 1980s. Single-handedly guiding the ship on the night I was there, Desiree was a whirl of activity and a well of good-natured quips. Part task-master, part cool aunt, if you’re lucky enough to go on a night she’s bartending it will be worth the trip. Service does matter. In this case, it transforms Rossi’s from (let’s face it) a dive, into a fun dive. You won’t find a lot of Michigan Avenue shoppers in Rossi’s, but you will find a varied and laid-back clientele, from after-work tradesmen, to in-the-know locals. None of them chickens like me.
What Rossi’s lacks in amenities, it more than makes up for in value. Tap beer is limited to PBR, Old Style and Blue Moon, but Rossi’s has close to 50 beers by the bottle, with dozens of imports. Specials rotate. I enjoyed some Rogue Dead Guy Ale for $3.50 a bottle, but all drinks were reasonably priced. You won’t find a menu of $14 faux-martinis here. Compared to most area bars Rossi’s is around a buck or two cheaper per drink. Have a couple of rounds, and suddenly you can afford another.
In what’s become a rarity for Chicago bars, Rossi’s has no kitchen. You can’t order any food, but you can grab a six-pack on your way out as Rossi’s Liquors is true to its name. A row of glass-fronted refrigerators in back offer an assortment of packaged beer for carry out, perfect for nearby hotel guests, if only they knew about it…
Located in the heart of the River North dining district (and one block south of the Grand Avenue Red Line stop), Rossi’s is a low-key place for a drink or a stop before or after a visit to the nearby House of Blues. Rossi’s is a friendly little joint in the tradition of the Matchbox, Archie’s Iowa & Rockwell Tavern or Foley’s. The location is excellent and the price is right. Maybe street mimes aren’t so bad either… (shudder)
* Not even Desiree knows when Rossi’s officially opened. It remains a mystery.