Four places to let the bartender pick your beer
by Michael austin
Years ago when I told a prolific-reading friend of mine about a great bookstore I had found, he paused and then taught me the most basic truth about great bookstores.
“Were the people who work there jerks?” he said, using a different word for jerks.
“Yeah,” I said, recalling an awkward exchange in among the shelves and then later at the cash register.
“Actually they were [jerks]. Every single one of them.”
“Oh, then it’s a great bookstore,” he said, asking me for the address.
Eventually I realized that the theory also applied to bike stores and beer bars — the jerkier the staff, the better the selection. Books, bikes and beers. Something about Bs and jerkiness. Something about Bs and beards/tattoos/piercings, too.
I have been able to find “B” stores with friendly, graceful employees (many of them bearded, tattooed and pierced) who are happy to help me find exactly what I want while intimating that I am leeching their precious time. At work.
For books, it’s the Book Cellar in Lincoln Square and for bikes it’s Village Cycle Center in Old Town.
I can be loyal to book and bike stores but I like to spread my beer bar love far and wide.
Sometimes the folks pouring brews are helpful and friendly; other nights you can almost see them rolling their eyes when you ask for a reminder about the difference between Cascade and Centennial hops.
Regardless, a great beer bar has an extensive or interesting beer list and a comfortable feel, conducive to lingering. It usually has a chalkboard, too, because beers come and beers go.
The best way to enjoy a beer bar is to trust the people pouring the beers.
Tell them what you like, or what you do not like — in any terms you can imagine — and 18 times out of 20 they will put a sample in front of you that is exactly what your mouth was thinking.
I have tested this theory and it almost always works. Maybe I am just easy. Or maybe they really are that good. I like to believe the latter.
Here are four of my favorite spots to trust the bartenders and, on some nights, even talk to them.
Map Room (1949 N. Hoyne, 773-252-7636): Offers more than 200 beers, 26 of them on tap. The bar does not sell food but you can bring your own (BYOF!) or call in a delivery. Map Room will even give you menus to browse. The tamale guy shows up, too. If he does not show in time and you cannot wait for delivery, raid the stash of complimentary pretzel rods as you enjoy perfect beers from around the world. If you are alone, there is plenty of reading material, too. Cash only.
Village Tap (2055 W. Roscoe, 877-410-7148): Boasts 26 taps, and about half of them flow with Chicago area or Midwestern craft beers. Village Tap is a classic, comfortable, wood-heavy Chicago neighborhood bar with a year-round beer garden in the back. The large food menu is anchored by the tavern’s renowned burgers in many and various iterations. When Village Tap hosts a tap takeover, offering up several or all of its handles to local brewers, it is one huge party.
Quenchers (2401 N. Western, 773-276-9730): The diviest of these four bars, but divey in a worn yet clean way. The place has 20 taps, and close to 300 beers total, including the rarest and most common. Naturally, rare beers are more common there (Yogi Berra would approve), but Quenchers barkeeps will serve you a Pabst without hesitation. The kitchen turns out sandwiches, little pizzas and pub food to go with the brews, music and other live entertainment. Cash only.
Bangers & Lace (1670 W. Division, 773-252-6499): The opposite of a dive, bordering on elegant. At least it could be called rustic-refined. With 32 beers on draft and another 75 in bottles or cans, B&L has a nice international selection to go along with its focused menu. Upscale but inexpensive food items include French fries with Taleggio cheese dip, rabbit sausage and truffle grilled cheese sandwiches. Most cost less than $10 and many cost less than $5. This is great beer and food in style.
I have not found a bike shop that serves beer but the Book Cellar carries about 10 different bottles from local brewers Metropolitan and Goose Island, and the esteemed Unibroue of Quebec. That would be a good start to any beer bar menu.
Michael Austin is a Chicago free-lance writer. E-mail email@example.com.