Not the dive bar it was, but there's nothing wrong with a little Midwest honkytonk.
Carol’s Pub in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood poses a bit of a dive bar purist quandary, a case where deep renovations have elevated the bar out of true dive bar status but have also ensured that the country-western institution exists at all. It goes without question that renovations were required, a rotting wall not up to code and bathrooms in disrepair even by dive bar standards, but of course updates come with the tradeoff that what was once a honkytonk dive bar is today a more refined live music destination, which of course not a bad thing.
The namesake of Carol’s Pub is Carol Harris, wife of original founded Ted Harris who opened the doors of the dive bar in 1972. After her husband’s death in 1993, ownership fell to Carol where the spirit of southern-style country-western dive bar drinking and live music was kept alive in a city that was once flush with such options. For a period of decades after World War I, “southern flight” was a real thing, Chicago receiving the lion’s share of what could be called southern “immigration” from points south. And as the people came, so did their music, a number of bar’s established around the city to cater to this fresh clientele.
Of the honkytonk-style bars created during that time, only Carol’s Pub still stands, a testament to the purity of the experience cultivated by Harris all those years. The dedication to the country live music scene at Carol’s Pub was and is so complete that house band Diamondback was elevated to legendary status within Chicago, the band playing Carol’s Pub on a near nightly basis for years, adding to the experience and helping shape the vibe inside. The story, however, took a turn in 2016 when delinquent tax bills caught up with Carol and forced the closure of Carol’s Pub, seemingly for good.
After two years of dormancy, the site was purchased by Ed Warm, then president of the Academy of Country Music, who felt a sense of devotion as one of Chicago’s leading country music voices to preserve a part of the genre’s history in the city. But with that purchase came required renovations that have stripped the bar of its dive bar status, creating instead a potent live music venue that honors its heritage in a number of ways even if the vibe inside is a little more upscale than it used to be. Moldy walls have been replaced and fitted with windows that open to the street outside during pleasant weather. Bathrooms have been renovated. The kitchen has been redone, though the signature bologna sandwich remains.
And with that frame of reference in mind, Carol’s Pub has done about as good a job as possible given the circumstances of creating something viable (and up to code) while doing as much as possible to preserve the legacy of the space. Original storefront windows hang on the walls. Original staff members were brought back during reopening. Diamondback may not play every night but they still grace the Carol’s Pub stage. The renovations here took place not out of the blind application of some kind of upscale bar starter pack but rather out of loving necessity.
Today, the beer lines have been reworked and the sound system updated, a key component of a live music experience inside Carol’s Pub that Wilco chose Carol’s as the venue for a 2022 surprise show. Outside the dive bar’s signature yellow brick remains with a bit of required upkeep and fresh paint here and there. Inside, old fixtures mingle with new, new artwork interspersed among framed pictures of old regulars and mementos saved from Carol’s Pub in its original incarnation. The bar area provides a view to an opened-up secondary space that serves as dance floor, overflow seating area and home to the Carol’s Pub stage. Opaque glass block windows add a little dive bar character and of course string lights hang from the exposed rafters. New updates blend as best they can with original elements throughout Carol’s Pub.
The word ‘renovation’ is almost a dirty word to a dive bar aficionado as any one of us has seen a beloved dive bar gutted, given new surfaces and robbed of its heritage. But Carol’s Pub is one case where that line is walked as well as possible, a new owner clearly in tune with what made the space special preserving everything possible to preserve while making the necessary and required changes to ensure its long-term existence. And to that end, owner Ed Warm has done exceedingly well, positioning Carol’s Pub to serve as Chicago’s de fact honkytonk pub for decades to come at the understandable and required expensive of one less decrepit wall and a few fresh bathrooms.