The Lighthouse (January 31, 2012)

On a quiet side street terminating in one of many far North Side Chicago beaches, lies a hidden gem of a dive bar that, if I have anything to say about it, will be a secret no more. In a way I hate to violate the establishment’s privacy, but this is the type of place I assumed no longer existed: a humble watering hole where everybody knows your name, or at least your face. No logo adorns a garish awning (in fact the tavern bears no signage at all), no Groupon deals drive hipster masses to the front door in search of the latest special on PBR. In fact, the Lighthouse Tavern, which opened for business in 1923 as a hotel bar inside of of the neighborhood’s then-fashionable resorts, doesn’t even have a website.

It is more than likely that the bar’s owners won’t appreciate this modest bit of publicity, but in a City I love that has become, in many ways, gentrified and chain-business occupied to oblivion, I am utterly giddy to discover a little piece of something authentic.

Yelp reviewers can identify with this paradoxical dilemma: to protect or share? David L. writes, “This bar is so cool you almost don’t want to tell anyone about it.” Denise P. waxes, “No pretenses here.You get eye contact. The best kind. Tracy behind the bar really wants to know if you want water with your libation, sugarmuffin. Billy remembers you have a cat, too. And he knows you like your wine in a rocks glass, not a wine glass. The beauty of The Lighthouse is that everybody pretty much leaves their weekday personas at home.”

The Lighthouse had me at its authentic nautical ambiance. I am not talking Red Lobster kitschy flair here folks. I mean antique seafaring tools, photos, maps – remnants of another century in the Windy City’s port of the Midwest past. It secured its grip with the well-preserved 1950s-era twin bowler arcade game. And I was completely gone after two hours spent enjoying the most satisfying people-watching exercise in which I have indulged in recent memory.

The Lighthouse answers the question: where did the front line members of Chicago’s counterculture movement end up? Turns out, their coordinates can be pinpointed to barstools within the Lighthouse. The scene was Easy Rider meets Hair: tresses were long, unruly and streaked with gray; leather and denim everywhere mixed with the intoxicating aroma of patchouli and whiskey. At approximately 8:00 PM on a Friday night, the nondescript bar of which I had hitherto remained ignorant was crawling with people drunk on shots and nostalgia.

As one of the youngest patrons by far that evening, I enjoyed an outsider’s perspective that simultaneously included me in a sustained toast to the good old days, whatever that meant to these people who survived free love, the Civil Rights movement and the administration of Richard J. Daley. I greedily grabbed snatches of conversation that alternated between lucid and soused, nostalgic and bitter. While gulping down cheap wine, I wanted to drink in the collective memory that coursed through the well-kept space.

I have already mentioned that the Lighthouse boasts very little PR infrastructure. I learned of the place like almost everyone who walks through the doors becomes initiated – word of mouth. I have lived in my neighborhood for over two years, consider myself informed and have passed by its door countless times. But I guess I was invited in when I was finally ready to appreciate its special anachronisms. As I come to value my own quirky, anti-establishment character, it seems I have found a new place to unwind.

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