Picnic table karaoke in a slender room with Obama gazing down is an experience.
When a dive bar starts throwing around the terms ‘Kurt Vonnegut’ and ‘jazz piano,’ there’s a story to be told. Though details are a bit hazy and hard to come by, there is some suggestion that Chicago’s Cove Lounge in the city’s Hyde Park neighborhood inspired Vonnegut’s writing of Player Piano, his first novel. The facts could potentially support the claim, Vonnegut having attended classes at nearby University of Chicago and the presence of a jazz piano at what was then the 1750 Club is established. True or not, even the suggestion of that kind of historical pedigree lends some additional mystique to what is otherwise a classic neighborhood corner dive.
The Cove Lounge sits inside a single story white building with one of the all-time classic pieces of dive bar neon attached, a long vertical inscription of the word “Cocktail” matched with an art deco-style, horizontal depiction of “Lounge” on two sides of an angled sign beneath it. At first glance, the location’s status as any particular type of cocktail lounge is hard to discern, only some subtle lettering that can sort of, kind of be seen through the window resting atop the bar indicating that The Cove Lounge is indeed to be found within.
While the ‘cove’ in Cove Lounge suggests some type of castaway-style nautical vibe, a pair of mounted fish and a few other flourishes provide the only evidence of the theme. Instead, the space, expanded under new ownership into two rooms instead of its original single-room footprint, looks more like a classic shotgun-style dive bar, a massive mahogany bar taking up most of the first room. Said to be Prohibition-era in age, the bar winds toward the back of the space, a slight curve adding a little character to the counter.
The bar back features a bit of green lighting supporting dual mirrors on either side of a large centerpiece that stretches to the ceiling. A few photos and bits of signage can be found here, including a tip bell, the bar’s ‘Cash Only’ sign and the bar’s food selection (bags of chips). Sporadic seating can be found along the opposite wall that includes a cutout into the room next to it, a recent development by Cove Lounge standards and a symptom of expansion into what was once a bookstore next door. A large sign along the center wall reads out some fairly upscale specialty cocktail options as well as a welcome to University of Chicago students that make up a portion of the clientele here.
The Cove Lounge’s second room is decidedly starker than the first, the deep wooden tones of the front room giving way to white surfaces and a massive mural painted along one wall. The seating in this second room includes a series of picnic tables to add a little community drinking to the proceedings, a few short square tables complementing the options in this overflow space. Karaoke and open mic nights take up residence here, the space transformed especially during karaoke nights where the crowd is packed in tight and highly participatory, using the picnic tables as supporting percussion more than anything else.
The mural features a stretch of the Chicago skyline as well as a massive depiction of former president Barack Obama smiling down on the festivities below. A bit of graffiti reads off “Hyde Park” on the opposite wall, creating a corridor of artwork on white walls that contrasts heavily with the more traditional dive bar atmosphere of the adjoining room. The bar’s dart boards can be found in this section in addition to a bowling video game because why not.
The Cove Lounge is, at the end of the day, the classic corner neighborhood dive bar, in this case one with a touch of Kurt Vonnegut in its not-so-distance past. A more recent expansion of the space has brought with it a community-driven, multi-purpose aspect to the Cove Lounge’s offerings, using things like karaoke and open mic nights to draw in locals and regulars. Put together, the Hyde Park dive bar pairs the classic divey aesthetic in its front room with the community-focused overflow area next door, a sort of fresh one-two punch in a space steeped in history.