Editor's note: as of July 16, 2005, the Artful Dodger has closed its doors after 21 years. Is nothing sacred?
The Artful Dodger is the epitome of Bucktown bars with its intriguing dark and murky vibe, combined with a laid-back, corner tavern atmosphere. The Dodger is a great place to visit when in the mood for a few cocktails, a literary argument, or for down and dirty club dancing without the pretension and attitude common in most Chicago clubs. You can't go wrong at the Dodger.
"Relax Brother Relax."
As is common in this part of Bucktown, the Artful Dodger is located in the middle of a quiet residential neighborhood, and is rather unassuming with its black wooden sign, few windows, lack of neon beer signs, and dark green façade. The Dodger is located at the corner of Wabansia and Wood, near to other notable Bucktown hotspots like the Leopard Lounge, Danny's Tavern and the Get Me High Lounge.
When you step inside, a bouncer waits to check your ID and to collect a $2 cover. The bar is on your left and five black and red leather booths run along the right side get there early if you want a seat. There is a Frankenstein pinball machine at the end of the bar, next to the swinging wooden doors that separate the bar area from the masses. Upon recommendation from a friend, I wouldn't waste your quarters on the pinball machine as it tilts about every five seconds.
The overall front room motif is New Orleans: Hurricanes are available, Mardi Gras beads hang from the old-fashioned lights above the bar, masks are everywhere, and a mural painted by a former patron (who has since moved to New Orleans) is located behind the bar featuring jazz musicians and instruments. Even the sign outside looks like something you'd see on Royal Street, near the R Bar, in Nahlins. Continuing the Big Easy theme, the Artful Dodger is also known for its infamous Mardi Gras celebration held annually for the last 15 years. Although the Artful Dodger doesn't normally serve food, an investment of $10 on Fat Tuesday buys you an all-you-can-eat Cajun buffet of gumbo, red beans and rice, jambalaya, greens, and corn bread prepared by owner Brian Friedler. Zydeco music is spun by the DJ to complete the picture. Only the tin ceiling helps remind patrons that they are still north of the Mason-Dixon line; although, if it were a tin roof, that would be another story...
The Dodger's signature drinks are the Aqua Velva (a tequila/margarita concoction) and the Purple Haze (vodka-based, similar to the Creepin' Jesus at the now defunct Brother Jimmy's). These drinks glow a bright green and purple, respectively, thanks to a glow stick that is served inside the drink. Afterwards these glow sticks often find themselves dancing between women's breasts, affixed to their necklaces. Damn lucky glow sticks! The Artful Dodger's vibrant drinks fit in well in the Artful Dodger's black-lit backroom, with its brightly painted, Day-Glo murals, and walls splattered with Tide. The mural on the back wall of the Artful Dodger looks like a fictional view of the LaSalle Street canyon as seen through someone's glass block-encrusted, cactus-toting Bucktown apartment window. The mural on the south wall depicts a series of heads with wide-open screaming mouths. Nice.
The Artful Dodger also has an impressive selection of beer (including several of the Belgian variety), wine, cognac, brandy, bourbon, and single-malt Scotch all detailed on the giant chalkboard opposite the bar. A good selection of martinis is also available, and "Martinis with Mancini" used to be the theme on Fridays before the crowds got there at 10:00 p.m.
When it's time to head into the back room, walk past the front room booths and barely perceptible paintings of abstract, plump naked women. The back room is rather small, but the lack of furnishings allows for a big enough dance floor (which looks like it was constructed out of plywood purchased at Home Depot). Funky patrons groove to an eclectic, yet hip-hop dominated, selection of music played by a DJ in the corner booth that makes me think of New York City. The DJ busily plays more of an experimental blend of music before the crowd comes in. When the place is hopping, there are a few vinyl booths located on the left side of the room, in which you can take in the action. Be careful not to let your coat or belongings slip between the booth and the wall, which is how I once lost my passport.
What Once Was Lost and Probably Shall Not Be Found...
If you're wondering why I had my passport with me, that night I had fled my apartment with only enough time to grab my passport and my wallet. You see, I was fearful of my second floor apartment suddenly becoming a first floor apartment after I received a call that my downstairs neighbor's ceiling had collapsed. Considering that that ceiling was my floor, I became concerned. It turned out that an overflowing toilet on the third floor ran down the wall and caused part of the first floor apartment's bathroom ceiling to cave in. Fortunately, due to an intriguing architectural design, my apartment was spared any water damage; so I should have just left my passport at home. Now, someone is probably running drugs, organizing coup-de-tats, renting cars and damaging them, or openly criticizing the Euro in my name. Alas!
Apparently in the early 1980's, the Artful Dodger used to attract patrons on a budget that frequently included art students looking to get loaded, espouse rhetoric, and woo those that would be impressed by them. Today, the drinks are more expensive and the Dodger attracts the same variety of condo-dwelling city folk and suburbanites in the know that all other bars in Bucktown seem to attract. The saving grace: people are fairly well dressed and are willing to get a little crazy. If you like the Liar's Club, you'll love the Artful Dodger.
"Equal parts nightclub and dungeon, the Artful Dodger has been kicking late night ass in Wicker Park since back when it was still a dangerous place to be after dark."
Shecky's Bar, Club & Lounge Guide 2002
In spite of stiff competition in this trendy area of Chicago, the Artful Dodger has raged on since 1984. Perhaps it has something to do with the Artful Dodger's interesting name, taken from the pickpocket character Jack Dawkins in Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens. The Artful Dodger is also not to be confused with the Artful Dodger Pub in Langley, BC, Canada, or with the great Brooklyn / LA Dodgers pitcher, Sandy Koufax. I recommend dinner at Club Lucky just down the road, and then an Aqua Velva afterwards at the Dodger. With its relaxing New Orleans-inspired front room, and psychedelic back room, the Artful Dodger is one of the most eclectic bars in the city, and one of the best.
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"Thanks for refreshing the memories, Sean. Glad you picked Jack Wild's Dodger from the musical Oliver! for the background image on that page. Sadly, Jack died from mouth cancer a year after the Dodger closed (ironically). He was the best Dodger on film, ever (and let's not forget him as Jimmy on PufnStuf!)."
F.N. (March 20, 2008)
Photo courtesy of Carl Stumpf