Get Ready For March Madness with Chicago's Best Sports Bars!

For those of you living in the Windy City with me, I wanted to make a very informative post regarding what I believe are the best places to watch games in Chi-town. We’ll keep it to the two neighborhoods closest to my living quarters: River North/Gold Coast and Lincoln Park/Wrigleyville.

To begin, I have to clarify a few things. In order to be even considered a “sports bar”, an establishment must meet two very important criteria:

1) The focus of the establishment in question must be sports. This means that there is capability to have a game’s audio on if you so desire, that you can watch any game that is being televised on any station regionally anywhere in the country, that the people in the establishment are watching the game actively, and that music is used more as filler than as the main source of background noise (read: the game audio is on unless it is a commercial or halftime). Places like Rockit, English and Lux Bar are great scenes and can be good places to watch a game passively, but they don’t meet this criteria and therefore can’t be considered sports bars. ESPNZone is widely considered a sports bar, but I don’t feel like anyone in the place is ever actually watching sports, and you’ll never catch me in that tourist trap unless I’m in the VIP room upstairs.

2) There must be a focus on beer as the beverage of choice. As much as I love wine and allow it to dominate my life, I rarely consume it while watching a football or basketball game. Real sports bars have beer specials, and have a wide selection of options on draft and in bottles (bonus points for lesser known microbrewery choices). There should always be at least one hoppy pale ale available.

After these criteria are met, establishments can separate themselves in regard to how well they excel at the following distinguishing attributes:

1) The television situation. Obviously, it goes without saying that you need to have a television to be a sports bar. At this point in time, it helps to have flat screens, lots of them, with HD capabilities. How easy are the televisions to see from the seating options? Are there enough televisions to watch three or four games at the same time actively without getting a stiff neck? Major bonus points here for having little TVs in the booths that give the sports fan maximum control.

2) The quality of the food. This isn’t a deal breaker, and I’m not looking for four star cuisine when I’m watching sports and pounding beers, but it helps to have some options besides pizza, nachos and burgers if I’m going to be inside a bar for up to 12 hours and drinking.

3) Intangibles, like atmosphere and lighting, go a long way with me.  Is the place warm and cozy on a snowy Saturday in November while I’m watching college football? Or is it bright and sterile? Are there other people there? Are they watching the game or out for dinner with the kids? Fireplaces are a huge plus in this department. If there are white tablecloths, that probably isn’t good. Bottom line- does it feel like a sports bar?

So, without further adieu, these are my five favorite sports bars in both areas, starting with the region closest to where I live:

RIVER NORTH/ GOLD COAST:

#5: Rock Bottom Brewery, Grand and State Street

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I have my complaints about this place, namely that it is quit “chainy” and therefore touristy, and that the food isn’t spectacular. However, you can’t deny the quantity of televisions in the bar, even if it is tough to get a table. I still feel like the televisions aren’t arranged very intelligently for viewing purposes, although they have added some flat screen HD sets recently. The main selling point here is the wide selection of delicious homebrew for a reasonable price. Combine that with the lucky few that score a decent spot to watch the game, and you have a solid sports bar combination. In addition, the rooftop beer garden is one of the city’s finest, and has televisions at the bar, creating one of the few places in the city where you can watch a game outside. A lot of people have forgotten about this place due to the ridiculous construction around that has been going on for what seems like two years, so I’m here to remind you to show them some love this March Madness season.

#4: Mother Hubbard’s, Hubbard and State Street

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Mother Hubbard’s makes no attempt to be anything besides what it is– a neighborhood sports bar–and gets major points for that. The dark atmosphere is almost like a dive bar, but they serve impressively good food here and have a great selection of draft beer all for reasonable prices. There are televisions aplenty, although they are scattered about a bit haphazardly and not all of them are up to date. Generally you can expect to hear sports audio when you walk past it, and the focus here is all about the games, probably more so than anywhere else in the area, and it’s generally very busy on game days. Only negatives here are a slightly run down feel and the difficult task of positioning around the bizarre alignment of television sets. Hint: Go to the back of the bar. I always have a good time here.

#3: Jake Melnick’s: Wabash and Superior Street

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I’m slightly biased here as this is my go-to spot in the neighborhood to watch games, but you simply can’t deny the warm, cozy feel of this place. The beer selection is vast; they have a monthly beer special and drink specials every day. The food is typical American bar food but the burgers are among the best in the whole city and the barbeque beef brisket is out of this world, all for incredibly reasonable prices for this area. The staff is generally very understanding and will seat you near a television of a game that you want to watch, or will simply change the channel, and have no trouble turning up the volume if need be. There are several flat screens and it is easy to find a table with multiple televisions in view, and going to the bar is never a bad option either. Jake’s is usually busy but not overcrowded, and remains one of my favorite places to watch games, which is convenient since it is a block from my apartment.

#2: Theory Bar and Grill, Hubbard and State Street

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Bars are going up all over the place on Hubbard right now. While my war cry of  “What recession?” is neither well received nor wisely stated, I walked into this place at 5:45 tonight only to find a bar filled with crazed Illini fans. I hate Illinois basketball as long as Bruce Weber is coach (not as much as Kentucky basketball though- welcome to the NIT bitches! Nice Hire!) , but I chose to live and work in the great city of Chicago, so this is what I deal with on a Friday afternoon after a long week of work. No problem, I gave my name to the friendly hostess, who assured me it would be 2.5 hours before they could seat my party, which I told her could be anywhere from “six to fourteen people.” Stay with me people, this is good work. When she called me twenty minutes later to tell me that a six top was available if I arrived in the next fifteen minutes, being across the street I alerted my party to pound drinks and head out. After braving a birth canal bar stretch (reminded me of Upstairs Pub, for you Bloomington folks), we were led back to the tables. Ours was insanely well placed. And this was without the booth tables that have their own private flat screens, a huge plus in my book.  Aside from the friendly service and the three flat screens directly in front of me, the beer selection was impressive, and the menu was what I would describe as somewhat experimental for bar food. They take their beer seriously here as well; I drank Three Floyds Alpha King all night. Above all, what separated this place from the trendy wanna-be “sports bars” next door (i.e. Social Club, Bull and Bear), Theory paid very close attention to the audio. Even late into the night, music was played during commercials, and game audio was the main priority after the commercials ended- this even involved switching from game to game based on relevance. That’s what I’m talking about. My only complaint would be the difficulty in getting into this place, but once you are in, Theory succeeds because it knows exactly what it is (an upscale sports bar, but not a trendy club), and doesn’t mess around with anything else.

#1 Stretch Run, Ohio and LaSalle Street

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When I heard that a bar was being built on LaSalle Street that was going to serve as an off-track-betting facility and a sports bar all at the same time, I figured this was one of those things that was too good to be true. I was wrong. Stretch Run combines all of the best elements of a true sports bar and even adds horse racing to the equation in what is one of the best recent additions to the neighborhood. There is no shortage of flat screen televisions at the bar or in the adjacent rooms, and the trump card here is that each table has its own personal television while as many as six other screens are in plain view. This is sports heaven for people who like to watch multiple games at once and throw in a bet on the ponies to boot. They could use some improvement on their beer selection, especially on draft, but they do have Sierra Nevada bottles, and that is good enough for me. As far as the food goes, it’s fair to say that it is slightly above average, and I’m partial to the steak chili. The atmosphere is modern and clean, especially if you stay downstairs and avoid the angry, degenerate gamblers upstairs (I jest). The only negative here is that for some reason they decided not to have regular bathrooms downstairs, and instead have two unisex stalls that understandably can get quite backed up at inopprotune times. If it’s an emergency, you can run upstairs to the main bathroom. It’s all horsies up there, and it’s worth checking out as well now that I’m being honest.

LINCOLN PARK/ LAKEVIEW

#5: Varsity Club, Clybourn and Webster

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In the old Jack Sullivan’s space, this is arguably a slight step down overall, although the television situation has improven vastly. Large flat screens line the entire back of the bar, easily visible from every vantage point, and game audio is generally on at important times. The space is modern and clean, very darkly lit and decorated but usually energetic. However, there are two big problems here. The beer selection is poor at best. I was here at a company party with free beer and could hardly even figure out what to drink because my choices were essentially Miller Lite, Guinness and Sam Adams. You can make due (snob that I am), but other places offer far better selection. The food options here are even worse, as there aren’t really any main courses, just greasy appetizers. Having said that, if you come here on a full stomach and want to do shots the whole game, you’ll have quite a good time I imagine.

#4: McGee’s, Webster and Sheffield Avenue

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I don’t think that McGee’s is completely sure what its purpose should be. On the one hand, it offers one of the best television setups in the city, with individual flat screens at each table in the main room and the back room, and more screens spread across the entiretly of the walls. The back room can get especially crowded, but is worth the hassle for all of the television options. The burgers here are generally a crowd pleaser, and the beer selection is about average. The problem here is the clientele, which is so young and party-hearty that McGee’s just barely passes my first criteria for being a “sports bar.” I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt because of the great viewing capacity, but suffice to say I haven’t been here for a few years.

#3: Kincaid’s, Armitage and Sheffield Avenue

I haven’t been here for ages, but I’ve always had a great time when I’ve been. The back room offers the most concentrated viewing experience, with lots of televisions in a dark, square room. Beer selection and food is average here, but the clientele is usually pretty energetic. The place is huge and therefore it is usually pretty easy to find a table, whether you prefer the bar, the upstairs loft, the more crowded downstairs area or the somewhat secret back room. Game audio pumps through the whole bar during big games. Televisions are, of course, abundant, and while Kincaid’s tends to cater to the college crowd a bit like the rest of the bars in this area, it seems to be a step up in maturity compared to places like McGee’s.

#2: Kirkwood, Sheffield and Wellington Avenue

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An Indiana-themed bar named after the most famous strip of bars in Bloomington, my alma mater, this relatively new establishment creates a warm feel with its dark wood and close quarters. The place is usually packed, but if you plan accordingly and get here early, there isn’t a much better viewing experience in the city. The flipside to that is that in the event that you arrive late and can’t get a table, being forced to stand borders on misery, as the main drawback to this place is that it tends to cater to a crowd that isn’t always completely focused on the game. Still, as sports bars go, Kirkwood takes the cake with its bar food, especially the filet mignon sliders, which rival those of Lux Bar and Gibson’s for half the cost. The beer selection is also impressive, although they have scaled it back a bit, presumably because most of its clientele is of the Miller Lite drinking persuasion. The televisions are brand new and spread throughout the place; you won’t have any trouble watching all four of the first round games here at 12:00 pm on Friday after you call in sick to work. Just get here early.

#1 Joe’s on Weed Street, Sheffield Avenue and Weed Street (near North Avenue)

This is the monster of all Chicago sports bars. The warehouse feel borders on dive-bar status, but there simply isn’t a larger venue for game viewing in the Chicago area. Seating is abundant, and there are more television screens here than anywhere else in the city. In the main room, projector screens spread the stage, and while they don’t offer the intimate HD that other sports bars do, they allow viewers to watch many games at once from far away without any strain. At the bar, the flat screen televisions offer HD, and in the front room, each table is equipped with its own personal television, which pretty much seals the deal for me. Joe’s isn’t the poster child for cleanliness, and I usually drink Coors light pitchers here, but the sheer quantity of televisions combined with the vast size of the place makes it tough to beat. In the food department, pizza is a staple here, and so is the chili. Make no mistake, while the games are on, everyone here is involved, and if you’re going to watch a big game in Chicago, this is usually the first place that comes to mind. It also rivals Stretch Run in that there is an OTB across the street with a window, so you can bet the ponies there, then run across the street to watch them back at Joe’s. I’ve spent many a Kentucky Derby and Breeders’ Cup Day here doing just that, but it is just as good during football season and in March for the hoops.

There you go, that’s all you need to know. Get out there and enjoy the basketball!

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