Since 1996, Subterranean has stood out against the likes of the Double Door, Wicker Park Tavern, and Estelle’s as one of the best bars around the six corner Milwaukee, North and Damen intersection, solidifying this corner of Bucktown as one of the coolest areas in the city to hang out. Subterranean appeals to those looking for either a loungey scene to enjoy a cocktail, or a swanky place to check out some live music. In fact, Subterranean offers one of most unique stage areas around. While Subterranean begins on street level and ascends two stories above that, the name may more accurately refer to nightcrawler patrons who come out everyday after 6:00 p.m.

The Ultralounge

Subterranean occupies all three levels of a 110-year-old building. While the structure has been there since the 19th Century, Subterranean has only been around for a few years. Next to the large-paned glass windows, step through the many-paned glass set of wooden doors, under the tiny black and white Subterranean sign into a black and white linoleum den known as “MMXI” (Latin numeric for 2011, the bar’s address on North Avenue). This room once functioned as a “wire room” for gambling locals. According to the Subterranean, “When the guests needed to flee the authorities, they escaped through the basement’s underground passage (now boarded up) which led into a tunnel allowing access to the Coyote building across the street.” Today, the bar is to your right, beckoning you to order a Martini, Vodka Cranberry, Gin & Tonic, or other strong concoction.

If you’re hungry, check out the menu. Since there is usually only one bartender, who disappears when Mother Nature calls, there should be plenty of time for you to decide what to nosh on. Choices include standard pub grub as quesadillas, buffalo wings and chicken fingers, while specialties include jambalaya, buffalo mushrooms and Cajun chicken sandwiches.

From the street you can easily spot which DJ is performing in the first floor lounge, and which band can be heard in the two-story upstairs “cabaret,” thanks to the black signs, updated weekly. I never thought I would say this about any of their kind, but the DJs at Subterranean are pretty good. Instead of mindless thumping, more machine-like than music, Subterranean’s sound is a great combination of jazz and dance music.

While the DJ is spinning vinyl, have a seat in Subterranean’s 60’s-style lounge area. You better check your grandmother’s house, as it looks like whomever decorated Subterranean went in there and cleaned the place out. The Japanese silk hanging lights have tassels, the multiple couches and armchairs are upholstered in gold fabric, and the mirrored wall allows you to check out the local talent. The low ceiling (also tasseled) in this enclave is complemented with funky wallpaper on either side of the room. Additional seating consists of purple velvety barstools and high tables in the middle of the room, and local artwork adorns the far wall. When you feel Mother Nature calling yourself, head into the subterranean depths of the bar’s downstairs where you’ll find the gothic restrooms beyond the polka dots. Ladies will appreciate the additional powder room in the first floor lounge. Dancers will also be happy to find a small wooden dance floor in front of the aforementioned DJ’s booth, usually teeming with funky chicks to rival that of Liar’s Club.

Of Ejections and Cell Phones

The evening started off innocently enough. Four Aussies, myself, and two American girls put on our funkies and headed out to Subterranean. When we got there, the music was in high gear and there was a mass of people on the tiny dance floor. As we enjoyed our Blue Moon Ales, it was discovered that one of the girls’ purses just purchased from Target had a makeup case much to the annoyance of the girl, oddly enough. “Throw it,” suggested the Aussie known as “Mad Dog.” The makeup case contents then promptly found their way hurled across the room. Then she got up to dance. At one point, I was the only one sitting at the table (writing all these damned notes!) and a guy came up wanting to leave his cell phone and cigarettes with me so that he could dance too. Sure, why not? I’m a good Samaritan. The cigarettes then joined the contents of the makeup case across the room, and the cell phone was used to make several calls including one to Australia. His phonebook was then deleted for good measure. Too bad. Aside from his cluelessness, he was nice enough. My advice: don’t leave your cell phone and cigarettes with anyone at a bar, ever. To make matters worse for the guy, he got all hot and bothered dancing with one of the girls only to have her leave with one of the Aussies. Bad luck, mate.

Ins Cabaret

While the lounge makes Subterranean one of my favorite places for a cocktail (when I can get a seat on one of the gold couches), the “Cabaret Room” is the bar’s real story. It is often booked with private parties or the occasional film festival, but if you check the Reader often, you’ll find a wide variety of bands play there including alternative, cover bands, funk, and whatever else you can think of. The Cabaret Room consists of two floors. The first is decked out with cocktail tables and chairs, and a bar stocked with an enormous cooler full of any beer you like. The ventilation is not the greatest, but the giant fan in the corner helps unless you’re standing right in front of it. The band plays on a stage at the north end of the room, while patrons groove below an ancient tiffany and brass chandelier that commands attention. Patrons can view the band, and the chandelier, from the white-painted, wooden balcony. Up there, one can belly up to a tiny bar, have a rest in its small lounge area, or have a slash in the can. The notoriety of the “Cabaret” is further enhanced when you realize that it was once a brothel, similar to that at Webster’s Wine Bar and Southport Lanes.

The Swinging Love Hammers

The Cabaret Room is also one of my favorite spots to catch some live music. I once caught an intriguing band called the “Swinging Love Hammers.” This is no ordinary band. The drummer wore a devil mask and the lead singer at one point hurled off his leather jacket, asked the audience if he could borrow $5.50 to buy a Jagermeister and Red Bull, and then jumped into the crowd to sing along with them. The band had shirts available for sale with “Fuck You” and “Nail This” styles available and also invited the entire audience to a free keg party they were hosting afterwards in Wicker Park (which, of course, I went to). I highly recommend that you catch the Swinging Love Hammers whenever you can, unless it’s at Subterranean on New Year’s Eve…

New Year’s Eve 2001

On New Year’s Eve in Chicago, the challenge is to find a good private party or a bar that doesn’t charge an arm and a leg admission. Typically, costs can range from $20 to $125, independent of how cool or divey the bar is. For that, one can expect all the Bud, Bud Light, tasteless pizza that gets gobbled up way before you get any, bottom-shelf well drinks and a champagne toast at midnight that consists of a shot of champagne in a plastic cup. We chose Subterranean this year because they were only charging $50 per person and, while this was definitely acceptable to my mind, I suspect it was part of the problems we ultimately encountered. This must have appealed to a great many other people as well, as Subterranean was absolutely packed. There was a line of people half a block long waiting to get in, and then a line five people wide and 20 people deep just to get to the bar where you could only get two drinks at a time. I put a $20 as tip on the bar to get noticed later, but it didn’t work. Then, afterwards, I waited a half hour to pick up our jacket at the coat check only to find that they had lost my friend’s leather jacket. Fortunately, they found it 20 minutes later. Then, it was another 15 minutes just to get down the staircase to the first floor. There must have been at least 100 people on that staircase and, considering that the building is over 110 years old, was probably the biggest fire hazard in the city that night. However, they had their entire selection of bottled beer available as part of the open bar (this never happens) and little bottles of champagne (with corks) were passed out at the bar with gay abandon at midnight. One of my friends wrapped up the evening with a round of sadomasochism that involved spanking the very large behind of a girl over at her place…

Evicting the King

Not everyone has become a big fan of the bar. Since it opened, the City of Chicago has been trying to shut Subterranean down. According to a recent article in UR, the trouble began when a couple that used to be regulars at Subterranean moved into the building next door and began complaining about the noise. After five years, 42 citations from the city, $60,000 in legal fees and court costs, and untold additional expenses of soundproofing the lounge and lost time in court, Subterranean is hanging on. Fortunately owner Robert “Elvis” Gomez has had the strength and determination to resist being pushed around by the city and uncompromising neighbors. Others like Karma and Lounge Ax have lost the battle. In the words of New City, “Elvis has not left the building.” Let’s hope it stays that way.

Subterranean is a great place for a cocktail at the early or tail end of the evening, unless you’re fortunate enough to find a band playing in the “Cabaret.” Lounge lizards will feel at home either before or after visits to the more edgy, nearby Border Line or Nick’s. Further information can be found on Subterranean’s website. Down the hatch!

[back to the Chicago Bar Project]