1653 N. Wells St. (1650N, 200W)
Chicago, IL 60614
R.I.P. May 14, 2007
The Roadhouse is one of the few honky-tonk bars in the entire Chicagoland area. The establishment began its life as the "Tequila Roadhouse," and replaced the original location of the Exit. The Roadhouse initially appealed to college students and recent grads with cheap beer and a plethora of specials. While the Roadhouse still offers a variety of interesting promotions, the college crowd has moved on as the drink prices have escalated to club-like levels. Today, the place gets hopping on the weekends as yuppified hard drinkers come to party down and scoot a boot.
To find the roadhouse, just cruise along Wells until you see the diner-like "used cars" sign, right above the blue "Roadhouse" placard. In the summertime, just listen for the din emanating from patrons sitting in the front windows that open out. The roadhouse's brick façade sports a few windows framed with worn wooden shutters. A Route 66 sign and several hubcaps can be seen at street level. When you walk past the bouncer and through the double doors, you'll be greeted by an old-fashioned, cigar shop wooden Indian.
The front room at the Roadhouse, with its green and red tones and metal, shanty-like ceiling, is reminiscent of a garage. There are several old gas signs, including a giant "Sinclair" sign. The banquette seating along the north wall is comprised entirely of old car seats with an old gas pump at the end. Worn, red-painted cocktail tables are located in front of car seat row, as well as up front by the fold-out windows. A red-felted pool table is set upon the worn wooden floor, but there really isn't much room to play unless you want to piss off everyone sitting at the windows. And, at a place like the Roadhouse, a fight is never far from erupting. Behind the car seats is a wall that looks like what you might find in your crazy uncle's crumbling house in Nebraska. The paint is worn down to the thin slats of wood, and even the wood has been worn away to show the plaster underneath. This would have more effect if it didn't look so fake. Instead, the Roadhouse's Southwestern garage feel is as authentic as fadó's Irish pub atmosphere. However, the place does have character, which is reinforced by the friendly wait staff, who serve up $5 beers and mediocre $8 margaritas quicker than you can say "yee-haw," and call you "baby" to boot. The old wooden bar on the north side of the room has an impressive set of longhorns hanging behind it as a centerpiece, framed by two cow skulls on either end. Feel like a tequila shot or an upside-down margarita? Of course you do – just climb up on the saddle at the bar and toss one back. Don't worry about any spillage as it wall go right into the plastic basin behind your head. I bet the bartender would do one too if you bought him one.
As you make your way to the back room, there is a middle bar with a grill behind it, making up the "kitchen" area, across from the ATM and Golden Tee. The canopy draped over this area makes it seem like you should be bellying up to the chuck wagon for another helping of pork and beans.
The back room is a large area with exposed brick walls and a curved wooden ceiling, reminiscent of John Barleycorn's on Clark, is adorned with burlap sacks –that's a new one for me. A wagon wheel is mounted to the cedar beam that holds the ceiling up. Orange candle globes proliferate at the tables and triangular wooden seating areas against the wall. There is additional seating at the stone "L"-shaped bar, which has metal, shanty-like lining. This is where the bartender known as "Skinny Rabbit" works his magic. Shutters frame the four TVs around the room, with what looks like a window above them with a silhouette of four people from the Old West. Three other TVs are located around the room along with two big screens against the north wall, and one flat screen, Sign Cast television with all the advertising you don't care to see. During the day, the back room is a great place to take in a game and has become home to Oklahoma State watch parties. Another set of longhorns can be seen as you make your way up front from the back.
There is also a far back room through Navaho-like screens. This area features additional seating at low-rider tables with banquet hall chairs, a small bar, more large windows, two pool tables, and a DJ booth. It is only open when busy, like on Thursday nights when locals come in after softball or volleyball matches for country karaoke. In fact, on one Thursday night in 1999, James Spader, Jennifer McShane and Marisa Tomei came to the Roadhouse to celebrate the wrap-up of the Keanu Reeves Movie, "'Driven." Weekends at the Roadhouse are the busiest, when scores pay a $5 cover to dance on the tables and the bar to country music spun by the DJ. Expect a line stretching down Wells after midnight, as the bar is open until 5:00 a.m. on Saturdays.
The Roadhouse also attracts locals during the week with interesting promotions like the recent "Hummer Limo Ride" and Michelob Light-sponsored Golden Tee tournament. One promotion was known as "Pimps and Ho's Night." The Roadhouse also offers a "Tequila Club Card" that entitles you to a T-shirt when you've thrown back 25 shots. Just think: for only $125, you could get a "free" t-shirt and cirrhosis – what a deal! While the food is standard pub vittles with a Mexican theme, the Roadhouse attracts some patrons for their burritos and chicken quesadillas – the latter having been sampled by yours truly and felt to be spanking gorgeous.
Before it was the Roadhouse, and the Tequila Roadhouse before that, the bar was known as the Exit Lounge, or "Exit" for short. Exit shut down in 1992 and later reopened at its current 1315 W. North Avenue address in 1995. It's current home in the industrial area of Chicago's North Side known elusively as the "Ranch Triangle," seems more fitting for the Exit. Before the current Roadhouse / Southwestern motif at 1653 N. Wells, the Exit featured a small bar in the front room and a sunken dance floor ("the pit") with a metal cage over it, and scrap metal, mechanical debris, and biker residue rounding out the decor. Weekend nights were filled with body slamming hardcore with a bit of rap and goth. There was no cover charge if you had a tattoo. "If there's still a guy with a Mohawk in the city of Chicago, this is where you can find him. Exit is a weird combination of South Side big-hair types, leather jacket punkers, and night owls who come here after the other bars close," is how Sweet Home Chicago – the Real City Guide described the Exit in 1993.
While the Roadhouse has been a success, in spite of replacing a hugely popular punk hangout, the Roadhouse's future is uncertain. In 1998, the City of Chicago revoked the bar's liquor license and the only thing keeping the bar open today is the Roadhouse's continued appeals by parent company Club Misty, Inc. The license was revoked for no reason that was explicitly specified, other than neighbors just wanting it shut down (by a vote of 165 to 62). It is suspected that other bars in the area who have not encountered the same difficulty with neighbors or the city, may have more political pull than the Roadhouse. In fact, the Roadhouse was the subject of an interesting law briefing I once read that drew parallels between the Roadhouse and the death of Socrates.
Today the crowd has gone from rowdy punk-rockers to rowdy cowboy-wannabees and exceedingly drunk women (can't be a bad thing), who all know how to get down and drink. I was recently chagrined to learn the the Roadhouse was voted in the top 10 by locals for Best Gay Bar in Citysearch: Chicago's audience poll in 2001. I guess the thought of cowboys in tight leather attracts them. Straight guys beware, it may not just be the drunk chicks giving you the eye. In conclusion, I find that the Barfly Guide to Chicago's Drinking Establishments (1999) assessment of the Roadhouse as, "a misplaced Division Street bar,"rings true to my ears. Come on party people.