clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
The exterior of a dive bar with an “Old Style” sign.
Zakopane is a Polish dive bar in Wicker Park.
Ashok Selvam/Eater Chicago

Filed under:

As Chicago’s Bars Go, So Goes the City

Reflecting on the good moments that only Chicago’s bars can provide and wondering if they’ll ever return

Ashok Selvam is the editor of Eater Chicago and a native Chicagoan armed with more than two decades of award-winning journalism. Now covering the world of restaurants and food, his nut graphs are super nutty.

Attending a funeral in the middle of a pandemic is a cruel ritual that many of us have just experienced for the first time. The pandemic funeral dress code not only requires your most somber attire, but the poise to pair that with a facial covering that literally masks emotions, while social distancing bars the simple indulgences like a warm embrace. I got my reps on a sweltering July day. Dennis Kardys Sr. was a 72-year-old Vietnam War veteran who died on July 4.

On paper, there’s little reason that Dennis Sr.’s life would cross with mine. This white guy was 30 years older, lived in the suburbs, and didn’t go to college. But Chicago bar life intertwined our fates. Dennis Sr. oozed cool. He was a proud man with signature sideburns who strummed the guitar, and loved his family. His fashion also dazzled thanks to a large collection of sleeveless shirts and denim.

We kept his rebellious spirit alive after the service inside the century-old chapel at Bohemian National Cemetery on the North Side. Near the office and away from the altars, Dennis Sr.’s sons cracked open a few bottles of their father’s favorite beer: frosty, cold Budweiser. The beer hit the spot inside this sweaty and creaky old chapel without air conditioning. The burial, limited to family due to COVID-19, took place a day later at Lincoln National Cemetery in Elwood.

If you closed your eyes while sipping those Buds, inside the chapel, it wasn’t hard to imagine a simpler time when all of us were drinking together with Dennis Sr. at his favorite bars. He liked dives, the kinds in Chicago with those Old Style signs hanging in front, where a mixologist’s only tool was a bottle opener. Taverns like Carol’s Pub, Stella’s, Marie’s Riptide, Inner Town Pub, Burke’s Web Pub, and the Bob Inn. Some of these institutions have closed. Some of them will in the coming months, thanks to the pandemic, with health experts warning of the risks of close-packed bars.

But back in 2003, when I met Dennis Sr., these dives were thriving. We met at Louie’s Pub in Bucktown on a karaoke night. His son, Dennis Jr., the spitting image of his father, asked me to sing a duet. I suddenly found myself lip-syncing as Sir Paul McCartney with Dennis Jr. taking on Michael Jackson’s role in a precise rendition of “The Girl Is Mine.”

Louie’s is a typical Chicago tavern: a narrow bar with a few TVs and a back room for group gatherings. Karaoke in Chicago isn’t like karaoke in LA, where wannabe actors sing and hope that a talent agent is in the audience. It’s not New York, where every song needs to have a personal meaning. Chicago has a sense of humor. The audience is encouraging. The only one angst is to make sure the DJ picks your song. Some will bribe the DJ. This is the Chicago way.

While the applause was far from thunderous, the crowd cheered after we finished. They smiled and laughed, raising their bottles in appreciation. There’s nothing like a Chicago bar filled with happy Chicagoans. Maybe someone just proposed to their partner. Maybe the White Sox just hit a walk-off winner on TV. Maybe someone crushed a karaoke song. Maybe someone just bought Malört for the entire bar.

The rest of the night was normal: we mingled with other customers, talked about music, who we were dating, our jobs — the typical things you discuss in your 20s. Dennis Sr. didn’t say too much to us until after last call, when we emptied through the side door onto Paulina.

After taking a few final drags of his cigarette, Dennis Sr. told us how much he enjoyed our karaoke performance. Now, having spent some time on the East Coast, it’s easy to dismiss this type of genuineness; cynicism is a power drug. But Dennis Sr. meant it: We entertained him, and he appreciated that. This is a friendliness unique to bars in the Midwest. He then extended an invitation to join him in the Southwest suburbs to sing with his band.

I was flattered, and a little bit caught off guard. I was also fresh out of college and 30 years younger than this guy. I also had no vocal training whatsoever. What did this man want from me? Who takes their father to bars and stays until 3 a.m.? Whose father invites a random stranger to sing in his band?

Well, that, my friend, is the magic of Chicago’s bar scene. It’s where you make the most unlikely friends, where — as long as you can hold your liquor and treat people (especially bar staff) fairly — your mistakes can be forgiven, your successes can be celebrated, and you will be appreciated.

Dennis Sr. seemed most at home at dive bars, where patrons could hear the buzz from the neon signs hanging in the windows and the floors always had a certain stickiness that provided character. He’d drive us from bar to bar while cranking up his stereo. He had tambourines in the car and urged us to play the rhythm section until we reached our destination. If we were lucky, we’d see Claudio Velez, Chicago’s legendary tamale guy, make his regular rounds.

As a kid growing up on the Northwest Side, I remember passing by dive bars and packaged-good stores in Jefferson Park. I’d peek my tiny head through the door, curious to see what was going on. Those guys inside didn’t look too friendly. They looked at us in the same disturbing way the staff at Red Lobster would look at my mom when she wore a sari while enjoying some cheddar biscuits. Chicago’s bars can be welcoming places. But there are exceptions, which makes it easier to harbor those doubts from youth about the limits of their smiles and about who receives this goodwill.

However, when hanging around Dennis Sr., I felt I had credibility, a guide, and a friend in an environment where I didn’t always feel welcome. He made sure we were comfortable and that we had a drink in our hands at all times. A shining example of this occurred at Zakopane in Wicker Park on Division Street, an old dive full that feels like an chalet, with wood paneling everywhere. Zywiec, an imported lager, is the drink of choice; it’s the Polish equivalent to La Crosse, Wisconsin’s Old Style, a cheap and refreshing lager popular in Chicago. There were five of us in the group: Dennis Sr, his two sons — Dennis Jr. and Cole — plus Cole’s best friend growing up, Jack. Jack and I split a season-ticket package for the Chicago Bulls, another relationship the blossomed from Chicago’s bars. Jack’s parents, like mine, are immigrants (his are from the Philippines).

Five folks posting.
Dennis Kardys Sr. (center, kneeling) along members of his soccer team at his younger son’s wedding (from left to right): Dennis Kardys Jr., Cole Kardys, Ashok Selvam, Jack Manansala.
Courtesy of Dennis Kardys Jr.

Our odd bunch drew stares from the bar. Zakopane is full of regulars who don’t want to be disturbed. You’ve got to respect that. They are entitled to their customary safe space, and when something or someone different enters a space, their antennae raise.

The problem is, those disapproving stares should be reserved for when someone breaks one of those unwritten bar rules. Our very existence shouldn’t be enough to disturb you. Dennis Sr. sensed the uneasiness. He went up to the bar and spoke with the bartender, introducing himself as a coach of an international soccer team. His companions were not only members of the team, but we were also, remarkably, his sons.

“What, you don’t believe all four of these guys are my sons?” he told the bartender, loud enough for the rest seated at the bar to hear.

The bartender rolled her eyes and opened five more bottles of chilled Zywiec. After coach Kardys’s declaration, the stares stopped. Instead, customers went back to bickering about the Bears QB situation, dibs, and deep-dish versus tavern-style pizza.

My friendship with Dennis Sr. extended beyond bars. He’d share war stories, the type of tales no school history book would detail, but he wouldn’t romanticize them. He’d share his fears and talk about the wounded. Many veterans have trouble articulating their experiences with civilians. But we had developed a trust. I attended his sons’ weddings. He attended mine.

Cancer and other health issues would prevent him from hanging out at bars, and over the last few years, my contact with Dennis Sr. was limited to his grandson’s Little League games and gatherings like holiday dinners. We found other ways of keeping in touch. He’d call me on April Fool’s Day with ridiculous stories: that his basement was flooded, or that his car wouldn’t start. Of course his, dog (Pony Boy) was also misbehaving.

At Dennis Jr.’s wedding, he stole the show, getting up on stage with a guitar, and he started wailing away. This was a Marty McFly at the dance in Back to the Future tour de force performance. I would later learn that Dennis Sr. had been in several bands through the years. Members of one the bands he left would eventually move on to join Survivor — the group known for “Eye of the Tiger” from the Rocky movies. Maybe I should have taken him up years ago on that offer to sing.

Chicago’s bars will never be the same, even after a coronavirus vaccine. QR code menus, to-go cocktails, and Zoom happy hours have changed the landscape. But I’m hoping folks can still see the value of going out, singing a few songs in front of strangers, and seeing how people react when “Malört” is mentioned in mixed company.

Weeks after the funeral, Dennis Sr.’s sons and Jack, flanked by a few other friends, gathered at Dennis Jr.’s home. Going to a bar wasn’t an option for a lot of reasons. Cole’s wife was pregnant, for one.

The pandemic has left many of us teetering on exhaustion. The very mechanisms we seek for support aren’t available. Under other circumstances, we’d be back at Zakopane with a cold Zywiec, toasting memories and ingratiating ourselves to regulars. Instead, out on Dennis Jr.’s backyard, I handed out Chicago Fire soccer shirts to the squad. Each had the name “Kardys” on the back. Our coach wasn’t around to see it, but the team finally had uniforms. We’ll just have to wait a while before showing them off to the general public. Karaoke, anyone?

Chicago Restaurant Openings

Chicago’s New All-Vegan Food Hall and 12 More Openings

Eater Inside

Inside Fulton Market’s Chill New Mexican Restaurant

Chicago Restaurant Closings

The Signature Room, the Sky-High Relic Inside the Former Hancock Tower, Closes