The first time I left the Cardinal Lounge I knew two things: Moving to Chicago was going to work out all right, and I had found my favorite bar.
The Cardinal, snuck into the corner where Lincoln and Western Avenue collide rather ungracefully at 4905 N. Lincoln Ave., doesn’t look like much from the outside, but don’t let the exterior fool you–it looks like less on the inside. It won’t show up on any “Best Bars” list anytime soon, but when I moved into the neighborhood from a small Wisconsin town 17 months ago, it begged me to say hello.
It’s a “slashie,” not in the “you might get stabbed here” sense, but because it’s a liquor store/ bar. It sits Kitty corner from the re-vamped Lincoln Square Lanes, perfect sentries for an overlooked stretch of the city that hosts as incongruous a collection of watering holes and eateries as you’ll find, a mélange of Irish, Korean, Krzgh, Bosnian, Serbian and plain old American dives in a three-block saunter.
The 2007 real estate crash likely saved a couple of these places, stunting the condoization that seeped in through the previous decade and buying some time for the last vestiges of an older Chicago.
The front windows of the Cardinal display the neon signs required of any self-respecting dive bar, and the parking lot wall is covered in beer special posters for the liquor store. It’s ringed by a generic maroon “Sports Bar” awning a few steps from the much more recognizable backlit, bright yellow “Cardinal Lounge” signpost.
The bar itself is as simple as it gets. The room is long and narrow, the bar and its 15 stools taking up one side, leaving room for a handful of hightop tables and a popcorn machine along the other wall, nothing more.
Nothing fancy here at all. No heavy wooden back bar. No vintage accouterments or tin ceiling, just a drop ceiling with a big Miller Light logo splashed in the middle. It’s bright in here, in part because of the lighting in the bar itself, but also because the bright lights of the liquor store shine through a bank of large windows at the end of the room. That light highlights walls painted the yellow side of beige, the color that, on a slow night with nobody to talk to, you stare at and think, “wow, that’s a hideous color.”
But most of the time you don’t notice.
You’ll find a half dozen beers on tap and behind them, against the back wall, a simple backbar with a decent booze selection, nothing extraordinarily fancy or hip. It’s a place where people do shots of Jameson, Makers, and what looks tonight like the occasional Yukon Jack. (The guy I’ve spied drinking the Yukon Jack, looks like a guy who drinks Yukon Jack.)
Then there’s the ode to the Chicago Blackhawks. There are Blackhawks bobbleheads, Blackhawks banners, signed photos of the old stars, and a picture of the 2010 Stanley Cup championship team.
These are the mark of Bob Schmidt, the regular bartender (there’s never a need for more than one at a time). He’s not the owner, but he is the Cardinal. He loves the Blackhawks, always has, even when he was growing up in Canada, near Calgary.
Look the place up on Yelp and most of the reviews will mention Bob. In a city full of “mixologists” and crafters of cocktails (whose work I enjoy, don’t get me wrong), Bob is a bartender. He gives his customers shit (and gets away with it) in a way that knocks you back at first.
He’s in his late 40s, with a voice scratched enough to be older. His left arm is covered in tattoos, a scruff of beard speckled with gray beneath his glasses.
Bob didn’t plan on becoming a part of this place. It started as a summer job, a way to make a little extra cash. “Well let me tell ya, it’s been a loooong summer,” Bob says.
That was nine years ago.
He worked at the Berghoff for a year, but says it was a little too snooty. It’s hard to picture him there, if only because he seems such a perfect fit here, where the drinks are cheap and the bull shitting is the best kind of cliché.
Order a Miller Lite and he’ll ask impatiently, “glass or bottle.” Pause and he’ll lean in, “come on, come on, I ain’t got all day.”
You’ll look around at the two other old men in the place chuckling at the end of the bar and think, um, all day is precisely what you seem to have.
You say glass, and he’ll shake his head incredulously. “Really? Sure, I gotta clean a glass now. Thanks.”
He’s joking, I think, but he doesn’t like doing dishes, that’s clear.
Some nights I’ll stop in, and at 34 I’ll be the young buck in here by a few decades. Bob will hold court the way a bartender does at a place like this, talking to some of the regular customers without actually talking to them. It’s not a slight, but a survival mechanism. At a point, a bartender can’t see the same people, doing the same thing, every single day and honestly engage with them. Sometimes you lean back, nod your head, and rely on clichés to get you through the stretch when it’s just you, a couple of warm stools, some bad TV, and too much time before close.
Other nights some random young revelers will roll in for the first time, trying to impress. They’ll order a specialty drink or bomb and earn a bemused look square in the eye.
“You haven’t been here before have ya?” he’ll say.
A minute later these young ones are parked on a stool, laughing, perfectly content with the glass of beer or simple cocktail they’re sipping on. Bob likes to say that “once your feet are up, you’re mine,” and it’s true. I’ve seen it again and again, a skeptical newbie turned Bob superfan in a matter of a few beers and maybe a shot of Jameson. There’s a Jagermeister tap behind the bar, but I’ve never seen it pour.
He jokes that if you want service, you can go someplace else, but it’s not exactly true. Bob’s a bartender’s bartender. Your drink doesn’t sit empty for long, and if it’s time for him to step out front for a smoke break, he makes sure everyone’s taken care of before he does.
I swung by in late May to catch game seven of the Stanley Cup quarterfinals between the Blackhawks and the Detroit Red Wings, and the stools of the Cardinal were occupied by what looks like the normal crowd. Older folks (mostly men, but a couple women), sat with their backs curled around the lip of the bar like they were designed for this place, feet up with a beer glass in front of them (mostly Old Styles, Becks, and Miller Lites).
Standing behind them, occupying all the hightops, were the younger guys and girls. The pretty young Red Wings fan that made her virgin visit here just last week is back, melding in like a regular. Bob welcomed her in spite of her misguided fandom, and as she got up to leave Bob hammered her with his patented close, the work of a great bar salesman.
“You come back and visit,” he says. He does this to newcomers. It’s more command than request. “I’ll be seein’ you. I’ll be seein’ you.”
A lot of places will thank you for coming in, a nod from a bouncer on the way out, or a bored shout from the barkeep or a server. Bob is all in. Have more than a couple in your first visit and you’re almost guaranteed to leave with a hug.
“See, we ain’t so bad here,” he’ll say. “I wanna see you back in here now.”
Invariably they return. Not for the beer list. Not for the cocktails. Not even because it’s cheap (though it is). It’s Bob, it’s comfortable, it’s without pretense. It is, what it is, and that’s perfect.
Later, after about half the crowd has cleared from the ‘Hawks game, Bob looks around the bar and puts his hands out, “where else could you get this?” He’s motioning to a crowd that’s now the kind of mix one usually finds in a small town, which might be what I love about the place more than anything else. “We’ve got such a diverse crowd that comes in here, and everybody talks to each other. Green, white, purple, black, I don’t care. Everybody’s welcome.”
In a small town, a bar can’t be too much of one thing – too young, too cool, too old, too loud. There’s not enough crowd to go around to exclude anyone, so you have to be a little safer, a little more generic, so everyone feels comfortable coming in and giving you their dollars.
Here, in the nation’s third largest city, people can live their entire lives within their own bubble. Spend your 20s in Wrigleyville with the bros and nights full of shots, graduate to Bucktown or Wicker Park, mingling amongst the hipsters finding style through your mid-to-late 20s. Then maybe bounce up to Roscoe Village or Lincoln Square, what my friend calls Strollerville, to live amongst the young parents and do the things young parents do. Each move keeps you with people in the same stage as you, each has bars and restaurants full of homogenous crowds in the same stage of life.
But here at the Cardinal, there is no niche.
Bob will joke about his customers, and you can get a fair amount of entertainment just listening to him jab at them for a night, but he looks out for them. He’ll bring extra food in for his shift, just in case a guest needs a little something in their belly. He says he’s probably spent a couple grand on cab fares over the years.
“I don’t care who you are, or if you’re in here calling me a jerkoff, so long as you’re still here to say it,” he says.
I call it a dive, which I mean as a term of endearment, but when I say this to George, my quite drinking companion during the ‘Hawks game, he corrects me.
“Oh, this isn’t a dive,” he corrects me, chuckling slightly. He’s 70-ish, leaning over his glass of beer. “I’ve been in a lot of dives that I don’t want to tell you about. This is a nice neighborhood bar.”
And that’s what it is, the best praise a bar could want.
Myles Dannhausen is a freelance writer and content strategist at Lightspan Digital, a Chicago digital marketing company in Ravenswood. He has written for Running Times, Gapersblock, Chicago Athlete, LoganSquarist, and the Peninsula Pulse, where he was the news editor for eight years. Find him on Google+ and follow him on Twitter @mylespulse.