The California Clipper

california clipper nightlife chicago

Rockabilly is an interesting animal as it exists today. A little bit of country, a little bit of rock and roll. Hipsters who like wearing cowboy boots and poodle skirts. The swing craze of the nineties gave birth to a bunch of nostalgic music junkies who were convinced they were born in the wrong era. The fad now long gone, though, and leaving these folks to latch onto something a little more universal. It was these folks who gave new life to the California Clipper, making way for a diverse crowd of cocktail connoisseurs and all around lovers of throwback music.

The California Clipper has always been and still is a bit isolated for a bar. Located on Augusta and California, this strip of Humboldt Park was real dodgy ten years ago but has been slowly cleaned up by more authentic hipsters driven west out of yuppified Wicker Park. Now there’s a tiny handful of retail nearby including my favorite chicken shack Feed, which will receive it’s own article in time. The most important thing to note about the Clipper in terms of the music scene is that they do not charge a cover. I mean NONE. Not even on New Years Eve. If this isn’t reason alone to check out it’s high quality music then I don’t know what is. They offer Bingo on Monday nights which is a real low key good time, a couple of starving stand up comics running off numbers and dolling out prizes such as defunct jazz tapes and toy prizes from Uncle Fun. And a big draw is the booze, as they serve up old school drinks like Rob Roy’s and Singapore Slings for downright cheap prices. Keep in mind, they’ve been serving these drinks long before the recent “mixologist” craze, offering up a far more casual 1940’s theme then the Violet Hour. Your bartender might have a dead serious handlebar mustache, but when he shoots grape soda from the gun you can’t help but smile.

Their music isn’t strictly rockabilly, of course, but it all tends to circulate around that mutt of a genre, each band encompassing one of it’s various influences with country, jazz, swing or blues. You’ll be toe tapping to a Hank Williams cover when the band switches to something a little jazzier and suddenly the Buddy Holly lookalike at the booth next to you is flinging his girl around just to watch her Bettie Page hairstyle flop. The dancing is spontaneous, though — the place is not a designated swing hall, and most people are content sipping their Salty Dog at the bar and watching. Meanwhile, the staff is always super friendly and clearly operates a social circle all their own of band members, bartenders and music appreciators. I recommend the bar’s website for it’s album of black and white photos somehow bequeathed to them by the original 1930’s owners. The historical documentation lends a sense of authenticity to the bar, elevating it above the kitsch that it’s 1940’s theme might imply.

So if your looking for a place to listen to catchy music but don’t want to commit to a $20 cover with nowhere to sit, the cab ride to the California Clipper is well worth it. Maybe it’s all in my head but my beer tastes finer with a Chuck Berry twang, and nothing goes with my Martini like a sultry imitation of Peggy Lee. Most of us never had the benefit of living during these time periods, but we sure as hell can pretend.


View The California Clipper (Bar, Humboldt Park) in a larger map

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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