Bourdain, Dahmer, Gacy and now you.
Rare is the dive bar that can cite Jeffrey Dahmer, Anthony Bourdain and John Wayne Gacy (supposedly) among its patrons, but such is the sometimes dark history of Chicago’s L&L Tavern. In a city flush with dive bars, L&L Tavern has nonetheless risen to particular notoriety thanks to its checkered history with past patrons and status as prestige cable filming location. But despite the ancillary credentials, no celebrity or show is needed to position L&L as Chicago dive bar royalty.
As with any storefront in Chicago, L&L Tavern boasts an extensive backstory, one that reliably picks up in the 1950s when it was opened as the Columbia Tavern & Liquors in a different location before opening at its current address in the early 1960s. Patriarch Paul Gillon, owner of the dive bar, turned management responsibilities over to wife Joan Gillon who manned the helm for 53 years. A subsequent sale to owners John “Lefty” Miller and Lauretta Miller provided the namesake to the dive bar, one that has been preserved despite a sale from L&L to current owner Ken Frandsen.
L&L’s bare bones storefront features a faded brown sign with ornate white lettering that looks as dated as the building that houses the dive bar. Opaque glass blocks frame a pair of windows and a recessed door completes the look of a dive bar that looks both open and closed at all hours of the day. Exterior features combined, it’s easy to see how easily visitors connect the reported serial killer-connected past to the dive bar’s clientele with the space itself. A very self aware sign in the front window is scrawled with “Creepiest Bar in the USA” to punctuate the L&L visuals.
Despite the hour of day, L&L Tavern is perpetually dim, dark green flooring conspiring with a profound lack of interior lighting to absorb the scant light that filters through the bar’s front windows. Every surface inside of L&L Tavern looks ancient, the picture of Jeffery Dahmer sitting at a corner table scouting out passersby’s across the street a very easy image to conjure. The green of the floor creeps halfway up the interior walls throughout the space with the exception of the area behind the bar where it takes over completely, a light absorbing backdrop to the extensive liquor selection atop the bar.
Interior features are minimal, the long bar running along one wall with a handful of short circular tables and aging, padded chairs filling in the rest of the floor plan. The stools at the bar have seen better days, the padding cracked and in places patched up with duct tape or, better yet, band stickers. The bar’s affiliation, despite the Budweiser sign out front, seems clearly linked to Pabst Blue Ribbon thanks to the extensive set of PBR decorations inside. A few illuminated signs are paired with a robust set of metal signs but the clear crowning achievement of dive bar decoration is the Christian nativity display that includes Joseph and Mary holding PBRs looking down upon their newborn son.
The sign collection extends from there, notable pieces including football- and boxing-themed PBR displays that look like commemorative pieces crossed with aging memorabilia. All of this epic signage takes up residence under a chipping, uneven stamped ceiling that pairs with the equally rustic floor below. Besides the bar and its beat up stools, the best seating option is no doubt the drink ledge that runs along the bar’s windows, a few similarly aged stools providing perches to look out onto Clark Street.
With its impeccable set of dive bar attributes, it should come as no surprise that L&L Tavern has served as filming location for both travel show (Anthony Bourdian’s “The Layover”) and prestige drama (“Lovecraft Country”). The jukebox fits the picture seamlessly, a host of rock classics mixed with I-forgot-about-that-one favorites. And somehow, among all of the dive bar glory within, L&L Tavern also earns the status as Irish whiskey destination, a surprisingly potent collection available.
As far as looking like a dive bar, L&L Tavern is difficult to beat, even in a city full of equally visually compelling options. But the look here is matched by the backstory, the footprint, the complete absorption of all natural light into dark green flooring and matching walls. Put together, Anthony Bourdain was onto something, equal parts PBR museum and whiskey-soaked drinking destination providing a welcome dive bar alcove on Chicago’s North Side.