Absolutely perfect, pervasively warm Ukrainian Village dive bar.
There are distinct similarities between a great dive bar and a place of worship, the low lighting, the history of the building, the tendency to use dark brown wood. Inner Town Pub in Chicago’s Ukrainian Village may be the best such example, a dive bar that somehow only dates back to 1983 but looks like it has been around for decades, a fact chalked up to the century-plus longevity of the building itself and the stained glass-tinged vibe within.
As with any building as old as the home to Inner Town Pub, details can be a bit hazy on specific opening dates, but estimates agree that this is one old dive bar. Pegging the building’s construction date around the late 1880s seems safe, with some suggestion that it has been operated as a bar of some sort for over a century. Ukrainian Village and nearby portions of Wicker Park, particularly Division Street to the north, feature of course Ukrainian heritage in the area’s history in addition to a deep Polish connection, Division Street once referred to as Polish Broadway. The building that today houses Inner Town Pub existed as Polish tavern for a period of years, suggestion being that it also operated as speakeasy during Prohibition (like almost every great Chicago dive bar).
Inner Town Pub enters the story in 1983 when owner Denis Fogarty opened the dive bar in a heavily residential neighborhood in a period of transition. As the neighborhood evolved nearby, especially to the north, Inner Town Pub benefited from being grandfathered into rules that today would have restricted the zoning of a bar in such a heavily residential part of town. That unique trait serves Inner Town Pub well, creating what is very much a classic corner neighborhood bar community inside, all of it supported by maybe the best dive bar interior in the city.
Outside, the unique look of very skinny brick covers the exterior of the building, a handful of postage stamp-sized windows cutting through the brick in places. The sign is inscribed with “Home to the Arts” as a nod to the dive bar’s history as a haven for artists and musicians, a trait that can be found in other nearby Ukrainian Village staples like Rainbo Club and others. Maybe more intriguing is the graphic on the sign itself, a man in a trench coat with a flipped up collar and a blond woman set against the backdrop of city buildings. Your guess of the meaning of the sign is as good as any, but it stands as one of the most unique in a city filled with uniquely interesting dive bar signage.
Warm light bathes the interior of Inner Town Pub, a handful of stained glass windows, similarly-styled lamps and opaque glass block windows combining to create a very soft, very dim environment. Wood paneling creeps halfway up the walls throughout, giving way to pale brown walls that together only accentuate the soft lighting atmosphere inside. The stained glass window in the front of the building is one of the best, the name of the bar created via mosaic. Not to be missed is the ceiling-level stained glass window in the first bathroom on the right (sometimes the women’s restroom but often open on a gender neutral basis).
Local art mixes with a profound love of Elvis as the decorations stretch around the space. Paintings and framed photos of Elvis complement a bust of the king himself perched above the cash only bar’s ATM. Musical instruments, tools, old beer signs and fading photographs mix to create that perfect balance in dive bar decorations, the look of seemingly mismatched pieces mounted to the wall and forgotten for about 40 years. The pay phone just inside the front door plays into that same feeling, a throwback in a room that is very much a throwback dive bar in its entirety.
A well-worn bar commands the front room, elevated seating available along the opposite wall that looks a bit like an upscale restaurant but with vintage tables jutting from the wall. The red padding on the bar counter has been well loved over the years, a number of drafts available behind the bar in partnership with the usual set of dive bar liquor options. Cocktail selections can be a bit fancy for the surroundings, though pricing is kept largely reasonable despite the flourishes available on some available cocktail options.
In back, a secondary room houses Inner Town Pub’s pool table and dart board, home to an occasional dart league that spins up within the bar. The pool table is and likely will forever be free, one of the signature elements of Inner Town Pub. The room that surrounds it is filled with overflow stool seating around built-in wooden ledges attached to the walls. Inner Town Pub’s other signature bit of stained glass can be fond here, the name of the bar inscribed on a center piece that sits in a triptych of sorts. An accordion can be found mounted to the wall in this back room because why not.
Inner Town Pub is a beautiful, perfectly lit, richly colored dive bar experience that ranks among the best in Chicago. That all of that can be found in a bar opened as recently as 1983 is impressive, every surface allowed to shine and bring forth the ancient authenticity of the building that well predates Inner Town Pub. The stained glass, the love of Elvis, the unique layout, the modern art, the must-see bathroom ceiling, all of it combines to create a compellingly warm, inviting dive bar experience in a part of Chicago perfect for such an institution.