When I moved to Chicago a couple months back I had no clue where one went on a Friday night after work. And while Chicago is known for great food and killer nightlife in the downtown area, I definitely did not feel like paying downtown prices. After a couple months of trial and error I have found some pretty cool bars that both have great atmosphere and are easy on the pocketbook. I realized now that it would have been a lot easier to get my bearings if someone had started a list of great places for us regular folks. Thus I present the poor hipster’s guide to nightlife.
The Bar: The Woodlawn Tap (Jimmy’s)
Location: on 55th and Woodlawn right across the street from the University of Chicago
History: The Woodlawn Tap, or more affectionately ‘Jimmy’s’ named after its original owner Jimmy Wilson, is a little piece of Chicago history. Back in day, circa 1940’s-50’s the University was not happy with the condition of its neighborhood in Hyde Park and threatened to pull out unless the city of Chicago conducted an Urban Renewal program to “beautify” it. And while that did mean cleaning up the streets, maintaining parks, and renovating rundown houses, it also, frankly, meant raising the cost of living for poor minority households, ultimately segregating them from university neighborhood then foreclosing and reselling the houses at a ‘professor’s’ discount to the predominately white demographic associated with the university. Additionally the city passed an ordinance that prohibited the selling of alcohol within 300 feet of a school or a church to in Hyde Park. Now if you have ever been to Hyde Park you know you can’t throw a stone without hitting a school or church. DISCLAIMER: DO NOT THROW STONES IN HYDE PARK… NOT COOL HOMES. So what the law effectively did was shut down almost every bar in Hyde Park. And yet in the midst of all the closings Jimmy Wilson, resident cool guy, whose establishment sits across the street from the University itself, got a free pass. In fact on Jimmy’s 70th birthday he received and honorary degree from U of C for creating a space conducive to the sharing of cultures, academic thought, and artistry. After Mr. Wilson’s death the bar shut down for a year or so, until a couple of die-hard Jimmy’s fans convinced the city to let them buy and reopen it. And the history making continued; Jimmy’s was one of the bars also responsible for the Illinois smoking ban passed in 2008.
The Atmosphere: When you walk up to the door of the Woodlawn Tap you will pause and question the fact as to whether or not you are walking into the back of the Starbucks located right next door. After deciding to walk through the black featureless nondescript door you will find a dimly lit old timey room with a wooden bar running down the span of the west wall adorned with bar stools all the way down. Along the eastern wall is a row of tables that seat four and the all-powerful ATM, as it is cash only. Above the bar is a food menu consisting simple bar food like burgers, hot dogs, fries…etc., about ten different items total. Admittedly there is not much diversity here but it makes up for in price. You can order a burger a side of fries, and a pint for under 9 bucks. To drink there are about 8-10 beers on tap and about 20 bottles to choose from, along with a full bar of liquor.
After you order both food and drink from one of the three regular bartenders (seriously I don’t think they go home) you’ll have to find a place to sit. The front room is usually full up with U of C students and professors alike. The second room has smaller tables and is usually quieter than the first and during the day it is a perfect place to grab a beer, and catch up on some reading or studying. The third room has 5 long tables the easily seat 6 or more, and on busy days a second bar that opens up on the west wall. This room can get a bit hectic especially when whole departments from U of C meet to have a drink after some school function.
I would have to give the Woodlawn Tap 4 out of 5 stars. As far as dingy neighborhood bars go this one is awesome. With fair prices, a friendly staff, and a great amount of character this is one of my favorite hang outs. Get a few friends together and head over to the Woodlawn Tap. I’ll probably be there in the second room writing. If you get lost just pull over and ask any student along the way, “Which way to Jimmy’s?”