After midnight, when the fancy bars have sucked your wallet dry, the classic Chicago corner dive is always there for you.
Many of these bars are called inns or pubs, not because they offer lodging or even food, but because those descriptors suggest hospitality and warmth. Rest your elbows on the burnished bar top, akimbo to bike messengers and old men, and your bartender will provide both of those things in spades. Then, over a cheap, cool pint, you can ponder why you ever dropped a hundred bucks on daiquiris bathed in the lore of Ernest Hemingway.
When I am in this state, the place I turn to is Inner Town Pub in Ukrainian Village.
There is a triumvirate of corner bars within a few-block walk in the neighborhood: Rainbo Club, Happy Village and Inner Town. I love them all but choose Inner Town because Rainbo is too obvious and Happy Village is more like a family basement. Inner Town is like a longtime friend with benefits. It’s not the most beautiful, but it has an ensnaring charm.
The allure begins with the Chicago Handshake, a pint of Old Style followed by a shot of Malort, just $5 for the pair. I’ve been to modern bars where $5 won’t even buy you a Miller High Life — but hey, did you see that the floor is made of reclaimed wood from a sunken ocean liner?
No thanks. I’ll be at Inner Town by the pool table, which is worn but respectable and, the best part, free.
The bar, a former Polish tavern, is rumored to have been a speak-easy during Prohibition. “I can neither confirm or deny those rumors, but I will say there are no windows in the bar,” owner Denis Fogarty tells me. That, coupled with moody lighting provided by strings of Christmas bulbs and Tiffany-style stained glass pendant lamps glistening against Christmas ornaments and tinsel, means that, like a bar version of Cancun, what happens in Inner Town stays at Inner Town. “Photos don’t come out very well. The stories don’t get out,” Fogarty says.
Inner Town was a favored haunt of “Gone Girl” author Gillian Flynn when she lived nearby, and she mentioned the bar in the book’s acknowledgments. I ask Fogarty about other sightings; the Smashing Pumpkins, for one, were known to hang out in the neighborhood in the band’s early days. “It was nice of Flynn to mention us in her book,” he says, “but generally I don’t like to name drop. (Inner Town) was an important place to the scene in the ’90s. Some people played open mics, and some people you might know even tended a few shifts of bar here, but I’m not going to name names.”
The real rock star, anyway, was Fogarty’s uncle, Michael Gormley (aka Inner Town Mike), who opened Inner Town in 1983 and managed the bar until 2015. (He died in September 2016 at age 88.) Among many things, he’s responsible for maybe the greatest charm of Inner Town: its 30-year accumulation of tchotchkes. The bar has a giant moose head, velvet paintings, a life-size statue of Elvis and original NSFW mirror art from celebrated 1970s-era Bally’s pinball machine artist Dave Christensen. Think of it as part dive bar and part antique store.
“After my uncle closed the bar, he’d get breakfast, then go to trunk sales and different secondhand antique stores,” Fogarty said. “He negotiated for two years on that Elvis statue until he got the price he was willing to pay.”
This article first appeared in the Chicago Tribune in a different form.