Old Town Ale House (Bar, Old Town)

What do we mean when we say “dive bar”? The term might have once referred to bars of ill repute but it’s unlikely that any real danger is being advertised these days when your buddy requests a trip to the local dive. The term has become a slang reference to the neighborhood bar, both a promotion of its simpler ambitions and a tongue-in-cheek apology for its faded and worn décor. But if you don’t throw that word around a lot, if you withhold the “D” word for the truly timeless watering holes where the bar flies look like they’ve been sitting on the same stool for decades and the outdated wall dressings aren’t excused but celebrated, then it’s time you visited the Old Town Ale House.

Old Town is a funny place. In the 60’s it was the epicenter of the hippie movement with rag tag comedy troops (Second City), European furniture stores (Crate & Barrel) and folksy guitar plucking musicians (Old Town School of Folk Music). If all of these ventures have grown exponentially beyond their britches in the last 50 years, it’s comforting to know the Old Town Ale House sits exactly as it was then.

If history was a tangible thing then it would be blistering from the Ale House walls like too many layers of paint. Bruce Elliot’s caricatures and dirty paintings clog up the spaces from ceiling to floor, recently achieving local fame and a volume of orders for his depiction of Sarah Palin (naked of course). The slight twist of his illustration’s body parts and facial features are mistakenly amateurish and lend a unique memory that will become distorted over the length of several drinks. There’s a table with a glass top stuffed with business cards and a vinyl juke box sporting classic blues and jazz records. I equate the smoke stained pictures and notes decorating this place to ancient cave drawings, marking the passing of time with archaeological permanence.

Tobin Mitchell is the owner, you’ll know this because she’s likely found behind the bar. Come to think of it, wasn’t that guy sitting at the corner in the exact same place last time we were here? These aren’t grumpy relics snoozing over their beer and clutching onto life in hopes of a Cubs World Series. This is an eclectic group of regulars drawn to the bar with smiles and laughter, as happy to converse with new comers as the old comers. They’re actors, teachers, boxers, writers, musicians and so on. But they’re all Chicagoans. Just be careful you don’t become one of them. The Old Town Ale House can lull you into a happy drunken stupor, toes tapping and elbows propped, talking up your neighbor until…wait what time is it? How many years have I been sitting here?

The Essentials:

Old Town Ale House

219 West North Avenue

(312) 944-7020


David Frankel McLean

About David Frankel McLean

I’ve been thinking philosophically about Chicago since I was jaywalking the streets at the age of 10. I don’t root for both baseball teams and I don’t put Ketchup on my hot dogs. When someone says they’re a Chicagoan they are speaking of a heritage and a doctrine, not just a location. What that doctrine is I’m not entirely sure, it’s constantly changing with the growth of the city and I’ll spend my entire life trying to figure it out.

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