Is it Christmas or just a dive bar? Hard to say.
There are some dive bars that are known quantities, must-visit institutions in a particular city. And then there are some that simply demand investigation, something about a dive bar’s curb appeal demanding a trip. Rose’s Lounge in Chicago’s Lincoln Park qualifies in both categories, its reputation as one of the city’s best dive bar intact, but with the kind of exterior storefront that would halt any dive bar fan in their tracks. Thankfully, Rose’s Lounge lives up to the high bar set on each account, cementing Rose’s Lounge as one of the dive bar cornerstones of Chicago.
Visiting Rose’s Lounge is like visiting a grandma who has spent about 50 years in the same house and just put up the same Christmas decorations she’s been using since 1973. In that analogy, grandma is Rose, namesake of the bar who for a long stretch of the bar’s history was its only employee, opening the bar when she felt like it and closing the bar under those same terms. The employee list has grown a bit over the years, but this is still a bare bones operation, a Christmas-heavy dive bar experience confined to a single room.
In contrast to the rest of the neighborhood that features largely nondescript buildings and residences, Rose’s Lounge features not only Christmas decorations on a pale green set of wood slats but also an enormous mural that stretches the length of the building’s exterior alley wall. And while the mural is impressive, the signature feature is still the dual “Rose” paintings above the front door, each simple in presentation with only the word “Rose” and a single rose in frame. Put together, those features make it abundantly clear that there is a dive bar to be found here, but just in case, a Chicago-standard Old Style “On Tap” sign extends over the front door as well.
Capturing Rose’s Lounge in a microcosm is the plaid couch uncomfortably close to the bar’s pool table that takes up central residence in the space’s only room under a stained glass-style Old Style pool light. The seating expands from there, a collection of mismatched kitchen tables and equally mismatched chairs taking up the balance of the dive bar’s space. A few stools can be found in spots around the edge of the bar and of course at the counter itself.
The commitment to Christmas at Rose’s Lounge is comprehensive, reflective garland draping from the bar’s drop ceiling pairing with Christmas lights of various colors found throughout the space. A bright snowflake light in one small porthole-size window sits opposite a red bar sign, projecting the holiday vibe out onto the street. Naturally, a Christmas tree can be found in the rear of Rose’s Lounge, multi-colored lights adding to the near total Christmas takeover inside.
The long bar takes up the length of one wall, terminating in a framed piece of art depicting a beach scene that I can only presume is titled “Christmas in July.” Behind the bar, there aren’t enough words to describe the full scene, a complete explosion of visual stimulation swirling around every inch of the back wall. Foreign money, dollar bills, Halloween decorations, photos of aspiring actresses, movie posters, there’s no end to the items to be discovered over a few hours of drinking frosted mug, $2 Old Style pints. Central to the bar is, of course, a cactus, because why not.
The decorations spiral from there, one end of the bar using a series of ancient-looking shelves to prop up all manner of dive bar relic, including what looks to be a collection of alarm clocks. Around the space, a classic dive bar metal sign can be seen here and there mixed in with seemingly random pieces of framed artwork and even a bas relief sculpture along one wall. And it goes without saying that the mixture of all of these varied pieces with an intense amount of Christmas garland only adds to the experience.
Rose’s Lounge features every element that marks a great dive bar, a particularly noteworthy achievement in a city that is flush with great dive drinking options. Epic sign, Christmas decorations, relentless wood paneling, mistmatched seating, a plaid couch, Rose should be proud for the thorough way she has architected one of Chicago’s best dive bar environments.