Somehow the cavernous bank lobby vibe works.
There’s something appealing about a dive bar with a sign small enough that it’s easy to miss that a business even operates nearby. Chicago’s Skylark commands a cavernous space in a building that spans what feels like an entire city block but features a small green sign above a nondescript door. Inside Skylark is a mix between no frills dive bar, classy cocktail joint and massive, classy sitting room all tied together with a deep devotion to green paint.
A bit off the beaten path in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood, Skylark opened in 2003, a recent occurrence as far as dive bar timelines go and that newness can be seen in some of the features inside. Outside though, the massive brick building stands like it ever did, an imposing figure on a city block that eventually transitions into more modern-looking storefronts. Skylark serves as the doorstep to those more contemporary offerings, a hidden gem in an area quickly populated with other food and drinking options.
Through the small green door in the corner of the building, Skylark unfolds into a single, very large, very open space, all of it trimmed with green paint that transitions into wood paneling a few feet off the floor. The decorations are measured, not cluttered, throughout Skylark, framed vintage photos mixing with mounted knick-knacks and the occasional portrait of a dog. The decorations here feel like a museum collection distributed throughout the space, no doubt a story behind most of the framed banners and other items that dot the walls behind and around the bar.
The Skylark vibe is an inviting one, warm lighting mixing with a terrazzo floor, green paint and deep brown wooden fixtures, almost like a classic bank had been converted into a drinking lounge. The bar itself, running almost the length of the long space, reflects the vibe, a dark brown counter matched by illuminated liquor bottles and well-distributed decorations to give off the appearance of a well-kept, high-class spot to grab a cocktail. Glass cabinets on either end of the bar house additional relics ranging from aged sculptures to varied glassware.
The draft beer selection is strong thanks to a fairly extensive set of taps in the center of the bar. Food is available, from Chicago basics like pierogies to more upscale offerings like a grilled salmon sandwich or cod po-boy. Skylark and its patrons appear particularly proud of the Chicago dive bar’s tater tot game, dipping sauces available to dress them up. Daily specials and occasional fish fries are also staples of the menu, all of it available on a cash-only basis.
Outside of the bar and its associated stools, seating is available in the form of wooden benches that line the wall opposite the bar. Short square tables and basic black chairs fill in the rest of the space, enough seating to handle a robust crowd. Near the front of the space, a small seating area (complete with periodical display) adds a little diversity to the non-stool seating options, feeling a bit like a living room in a fancy house, complete with dedicated (warm light temperature of course) lamps.
Dive bar bathrooms are always ripe for a classic fixture or two and Skylark doesn’t disappoint, the men’s room featuring two of the largest porcelain floor-length urinals these reviewer has ever seen. Function aside, they are impressive and fit in well with the refined dive vibe that Skylark is best associated with. And of course, just for balance, a Munsters-themed pinball machine is available just to add a little variety to the otherwise uber-clean look to the space.
As far as dive bars go, Skylark is sophisticated to be sure and perhaps a bit too refined to be labeled a dive bar at all. But the small sign and location that melts into the long-standing brick building that houses the Skylark earn it the ‘hidden gem’ distinction to be sure. Any place that offers up a PBR & Malort beer and shot combo in Chicago can certainly make a case for dive bar classification, but more than anything, this Pilsen anchor is a warm, inviting, we-can-find-a-place-to-sit style drinking lounge that serves as a great launching point for exploration of the neighborhood outside its small, almost hidden front door.