One has to wonder the song selections at 4 AM on a Saturday night.
Chicago’s Avondale neighborhood on the city’s northwest side has carried with it a blue collar reputation before a more recent wave of newfound attention thanks to the three things that bring people to knew areas: food, drinks and culture. And though some of that newfound attention is welcome and some of it isn’t, the neighborhood is filled with authentic, untouched options. Alice’s Lounge is one such option, a dive bar opened in 1986 that has shifted a bit over the years but maintains a humble, no-frills vibe no matter the developments outside the front door.
The big shift in Alice’s Lounge, overseen by namesake Alice Boron, has been the slow shift away from early morning opening hours catering to third-shifters in favor of that siren song of dive bars all over the world, karaoke. Any cursory review of Alice’s Lounge and its online presence will turn up the word ‘karaoke’ in huge frequency thanks to the bar’s reputation for having one of the most fun, most varied karaoke nights in the city. That attention has led to a slow expansion of karaoke evenings, now four nights a week running as late as 4:30 AM.
Alice’s Lounge occupies a space once operated as a bar known as Sullivan’s & Helen’s after a prior life as a butcher shop. The dive bar’s opening in 1986 was one pushed by Alice’s husband and brother-in-law but after Alice’s sister and brother-in-law moved away and her husband passed away, Alice was left as unexpected owner and sole operator of the space. Her leadership has guided Alice’s Lounge through all manner of trial and tribulation since then, notably the global pandemic that threatened dive bars just like Alice’s Lounge with heavy restrictions and an obvious incompatibility between group karaoke and an airborne illness.
For such a strong association with karaoke, Alice’s Lounge isn’t necessarily a space that looks built for the purpose at first glance, the corner spot of a large brick building housing really just a single long room with no stage or alcove to tuck away inebriated singers. Instead, karaoke happens ‘in the round’ so to speak, a small booth in the middle of the room serving as nerve center for free-walking karaoke singers very much intermingled with the crowd. On crowded nights, that can mean both a unique karaoke experience as well as a perpetual traffic jam as bar patrons attempt to navigate the karaoke ‘island’ in the middle of the space.
On evenings without karaoke, Alice’s Lounge looks like a classic Chicago dive bar, a simple front door with signs reading “Karaoke Bar” and “Chuck’s & Ed’s Tavern, Inc.” tucked just under an awning with the dive bar’s address inscribed. Notably, no mention of the words ‘Alice’ or ‘lounge’ can be found and some tales of visits have included the need to be buzzed in (though this was not my experience). Uncharacteristically for a dive bar, natural light isn’t altogether shunned here, a set of windows wrapping around much of the building.
Wood paneling wraps around the space inside, seamlessly transitioning into an expansive back bar that runs almost the length of the building. The looks is a classic one with long, dark wood on either side of the bar, illuminated liquor bottles in front of a pair of mirrors and assorted cooler doors hiding cans & bottles. Decorations are certainly present but not overwhelming, the traditional combination of beer signs and the occasional bit of neon surrounding the room. A pair of dart boards can be found in the rear of the space.
But the star here is obviously karaoke, the noteworthy elements around Alice’s Lounge all designed to heighten the singing experience. Panel televisions are found in spots to show lyrics but more interestingly, a number of dance floor light elements can be found mounted to the ceiling and elsewhere, all of them mixing to create a multi-colored dance floor vibe that plays well with late night karaoke.
Put together, the Alice’s Lounge reputation for one of the best karaoke nights in the city is well earned, a corner bar layout maybe not originally intended to facilitate amateur, late night singing sessions that does exactly that. The centered, non-elevated positioning of singer and karaoke DJ makes for a unique twist on the karaoke theme, maximizing the space and engaging the singer with the associated crowd. The end effect is a reliable, one-more-before-we-go-home Avondale staple in a quickly evolving neighborhood.