Whether remnants of a different time or strategic filtering devices, doorbells lend an exclusive air to some of the city's most interesting taverns. Channeling the days of the speakeasy, these bars monitor the riff raff while cultivating a private setting. And they're much more fun when on the inside looking out.
"I let everyone in once," says Steve Badauskas, son of owner Bernice and the late John. "You decide if you can come back." A tavern since the Prohibition Era, this family owned buzzer bar is like a well-worn clubhouse, with walls plastered in sentimental clippings and notes. Doorbells were on the rise on the South Side when the previous owners installed theirs in the '60s, prompted by the tavern's politically charged location and neighborhood shootings. When the area settled down, new proprietors Bernice and John (who also lived upstairs) noticed that the patrons liked the quirk of the doorbell, and decided to keep it functioning. Nowadays, the clientele consists of friendly artist types who like the exclusiveness, live music and the daily $2 PBRs. The BYOF policy, subtly championed by Badauskas, encourages bar-goers to bring in dinner or snacks—so long as they remember the guy who buzzed 'em in.
A legend among dive bar connoisseurs, Johnny's is best described as a truck stop in the middle of West Lakeview. Though it also houses a motley mix of young, burnout hipsters, it's the truckers that have a stronghold here. Don't bother calling ahead; the select group actually permitted to enter this place has to do it the old-fashioned way: Look for the Hamm's sign, ring the bell and stick your face in the window. Johnny, the near 80-year-old owner, will see if he recognizes you or if he even cares to. Be forewarned: The dress code here involves flannels and trucker hats, and there's no way you'll get in wearing high heels. Inside, a lodge-like décor, jukebox and pool table are the only eye-candy you'll get. The popular drink here, a giant can of oddly unfamiliar Czech beer, seems to come from a stock Johnny's been hoarding for 50 years. Unsurprisingly, the doorbell here is the crux of the tavern's resilient dive identity, letting its regular crowd weed out the sightseers (though I'm guessing they'll bend the rules for a cute group of blondes).
photo: courtesy of Bridget Cicenia; pictured: the buzzer at Bernice's
When seeking out this nondescript bar frequented by Ukrainian immigrants, your best bet is to look for the Old Style sign and then the small neon in the window. Ring the doorbell, which is as old as the 40-year-old bar, and the sweet, Eastern European bartender will buzz you in. Most of the staff has worked at EZ for ten-plus years, and they still chat about former patrons in the area. More or less, EZ Inn is true to its name, ushering in friendly folks who appreciate a cheap pint of Miller Lite. The bland interior of the bar is conducive to nothing more than chatting; or for those hopelessly monolingual, a pool table and dart board provide a quick way to ease into the neighborhood-driven crowd.
Relax on Milwaukee
The buzzer is still here, but Manager Ray Pate says he likes to turn it off. "Ten, 15 years ago, it was the right thing to do," he says. "But a lot of good people live here now." Relax, which also had bars bracing each window (now removed), sits next to a furniture store and has historically drawn a middle-aged, sports-minded Logan Square crowd. Yet, thanks to Pate's savvy discernment between bad kitsch and retro-kitsch, the demographic is quickly diversifying: He's covered up the chartreuse, "Linda Blair from the exorcist" paint, dropped the "sports bar" from the moniker and on Wednesdays, Continental mainstay and oldies guru, DJ Coffin Banger, sets up shop. Relax also takes great pains to foster a community setting. In what I'm hoping refers to a pet, a sign inside the bar reads: "Relax is sad to announce: Vince is gone. If anyone's seen Vince, please contact us." As an added bonus, Relax has Malort, the ferociously bitter liqueur produced in Chicago, and bartenders aren't afraid to use it; ask Pate about the Malort Challenge.