Slow Down! Life's too Short
1177 N. Elston Ave. (1200N, 1400W)
Chicago, IL 60622
Editor's Note: as of April 2008, it appears that Slow Down! may be re-opening, but to the satisfaction of the Chicago Bar Project. Stay tuned for details... Slow Down! was made to heed its name by the city when it was closed on November 9, 2004 for "dangerous and hazardous conditions." The bar was meant to re-open in April 2008 and is listed on the Rush & Division website (owners), but remains closed.
Crazy drinking. These two words sum up the Slow Down! Life's Too Short experience. It's hard to leave the place without getting loaded, crazy and doing something you're sure to regret in the morning. "Slow Down!" is a double entendre that refers both to the laid-back, beach culture-inspired atmosphere evident in all of Life's Too Short's meandering rooms and multiple outdoor patios, and as a signal to boaters on the Chicago River to put on the brakes and head inside for a drink or three. As far as the consumption of alcohol goes, have a Corona or try one of their fishbowl specialties, relax outside or get your freak on in front of the band. Whatever you do there, you're bound to thoroughly, perhaps overly, enjoy yourself, as well as go back again and again no matter what the repercussions of your actions may be. Just remember: life's too short...
Location, Location, Location
Whether you're traveling by car, cab, bike, or boat coming up or down the North Branch of the Chicago River, it's hard to miss Slow Down at the corner of Elston Avenue and Division Street (kitty corner from the Lexus dealership). On the roof, clearly visible from every direction, is a giant, oblong yellow stop sign with "SLOW DOWN" painted in black letters above "LIFE'S TOO SHORT" lit in neon below. If that doesn't capture your attention, maybe the giant hamburger and hotdog men, reminiscent of Milwaukee Avenue's Superdawg surely will. As you approach from the street, Slow Down! is comprised of a green shed with red doors attached to two large wooden shacks. In reality, these structures comprise one large, multi-roomed building with it's own dock for boaters. They even have a shower available, ala Comiskey Park, to wash off that river-stink. Valet parking is available for cars and boats, but there is plenty of space so you shouldn't need it. I can't recommend driving as you are bound to get schnockered, but I can recommend that you take a cab to Slow Down! as long as you have a cell phone and the phone number to call them when you're ready to leave (cabs can be very difficult to come by in this area). Better yet, make Life's Too Short a stop if you're doing a pub crawl or bachelor/bachelorette party via Chicago Trolley – then no one has to worry about drinking and driving, or finding a cab.
"Convenience of valet parking your boat might be more appealing if you actually had a boat"
– The Official Chicago Bar Guide (2001)
In a Word, "Ramshackle"
The ambiance prevalent at Slow Down! is one of down-and-dirty drinking that would make anyone from Key West, Ft. Lauderdale or Tampa Bay proud. The Lodge Management Group has instilled a nautical theme reinforced by the 300-foot dock, brightly painted wood, oars and life preservers hanging on the wall, and several notable outdoor patios.
If by land, step up to the doormen and have your ID ready. Walk down a few stairs, through a narrow hallway and you'll find the main bar on your right hand side running askew along the west wall. Once you find an empty space to step into, belly up and order your first round of drinks. Due to the crowds and quality of service, this may be your quickest way to get served all night. While you're waiting, have a look at some of the laminated newspaper clippings on the bar's surface. You may also want to take in some of the bar's decor, which includes: a wooden mermaid attached to a wooden post, hollowed out gas cans used as hanging light fixtures, a shark suspended from the ceiling with bras hanging from it and a bottle of Bud in its mouth (Weeds Tavern, eat your heart out!), multi-colored Christmas lights strung along the walls, a wooden floor that creaks wherever you step, one portion of netting that precariously holds about 75 bottles above patrons, and another section that holds more bottles as well as a mannequin lying face down with a beer can in its grasp sticking through the net, and a slightly elevated stage below the skylight. This is just a small sample of the tangible craziness that abounds at Slow Down!
Another smaller bar is located in the northeast corner of the main room down a few steps. To the left of that is a dining area where you can have a seat at one of several tables or booths with black & white checkered tablecloths or have a go on the pool table (separated from the booths by a boat anchor chain). If you can't find a seat or feel a bit restless, head to the rooms beyond and have a go at the bumper pool, foosball or upright piano that, when looking at it, indicates how slanted the floor really is. A few TVs can be found around these rooms but it's not really a sports bar, so don't come here to watch the Cubs lose. A word of warning: it may have been fixed but the last time we tried to play bumper pool, not only could we not remember the rules but also all the balls got stuck. Caveat emptor! As we tried to get our balls loose (at the bumper pool table, that is), we noticed a trap door that when opened reveals a dangerous staircase that leads down to a storeroom without a light (don't ask me why I know this). My recommendation: avoid the bumper pool room altogether. Across from the nefarious temptations of the bumper pool room are the bathrooms. I would also recommend avoiding this area if it were feasible. However, when you go brace yourself and don't look too closely at anything (either fixtures or patrons). I'm not sure what perils await in the women's can, but the men's usually involves a short wait in a seemingly long line before access can be had at the porcelain piss trough, located just below the Jackson Pollack-inspired wall painting.
On a lighter note, one of the biggest draws to Slow Down! is the plentitude of outdoor drinking spaces. In fact, Slow Down! has one of the largest outdoor beer gardens of any bar in Chicago, rivaling John Barleycorn's Memorial Pub, Castaways, Moody's Pub, and even the friendly confines of Wrigley Field. The first beer garden area is a rooftop patio known as the "Cabana Deck," which can be accessed from the rickety wooden steps just to the right of the main bar and to the left of the stage. The Cabana boasts its own, newly enlarged bar, several plastic tables and chairs and, most importantly, an excellent view of the Chicago skyline prominently highlighted by the Sears Tower. This makes excellent viewing for the City of Chicago's immensely popular July 3rd fireworks. When the Cabana Deck closes at midnight don't worry, the same view can be seen from the cement patio located just outside the main bar area on the first floor, although it can be somewhat degraded by the crane and an industrial equipment graveyard next door depending on which set of busted-up, wooden cable spools and elementary school chairs you're sitting at. In the off-season, the cement patio doubles as a dry dock and huge boats can be seen bumping up to Slow Down's wobbly façade. If you tire of the view or feel frustrated that someone's playing at the bumper pool table, have a go at one of the ping pong tables or have a game of horseshoes. There is also an outdoor deck at the north end of the bar that overlooks the river that is filled with beer company paraphernalia and more plastic tables and chairs shaded by umbrellas. There are even a few small tables available on the waterfront.
Searching for that Lost Shaker of Salt...
While the outdoor decks make Slow Down! an ideal place for margaritas in the summertime, Slow Down! is open all year round now that the Lodge Management Group has "winterized" the place to keep Jack Frost from nipping at your... never mind. In addition to a few notable events (mentioned below), Slow Down! attracts a good crowd even in the colder months due mainly to a good lineup of rock, insurgent country, reggae, and blues bands that play regularly (usually Thursday and Sunday nights), without a cover. They also sometimes host a one-man-cover-band who plays the harmonica and guitar.
In-between bands, tunes pour out of the 70's and 80's-infused jukebox from the likes of Jimmy Buffett, Counting Crows, Dave Matthews and the Allman Brothers. There is also an eclectic mix of Cajun, country and bluegrass ditties to choose from. Whether it's coming from the juke or the band, the music at Slow Down! is usually loud so head outside if you feel like having a conversation.
Grub and Groggery
The draw to Slow Down! mainly stems from their beer gardens and bands, not from the food and certainly not the service. Slow Down! offers a limited menu of average quality, overpriced ($7-$10) "swamp cuisine" that consists of burgers, sandwiches, an array of fried things, and a hot dog unappetizingly named the "Tubbie Tube Steak." On the other hand, Life's Too Short does offer an intriguing variety of sauces for your sandwich that include, Suthiinn Swamp Style, Arrestingly Spicy BBQ, Swampmustard Funk, and Fiery Felda Fire. Surprisingly, the buffalo wings are some of the best in the city if you like hot wings. In fact, I would rank them up there with bw-3, Buffalo Joe's and Hog Head McDunna's for being one of the few establishments able to create a sauce that is both spicy and tasty – you usually have to choose one or the other.
The tie-dye-wearing staff at Slow Down! clearly seem to take the establishment's name to heart. It is not uncommon to wait up to 15 minutes for a server or bartender to get around to you, and up to twice that to get your food. Don't go there on an empty stomach! I once even had a surly waitress that actually complained about how much we were ordering. That made us sure to make her tip inversely proportional to the quantity of food and drink.
To quench your thirst, Slow Down! has a good selection of beers and a more impressive selection of tequila. Slow Down! also serves a decent margarita and a few fishbowl drinks (for the low, low price of $20 each). I once hosted a party at Slow Down! and was given the opportunity to buy drinks for the same price as everyone else in the bar. What a deal.
Slow Down! is the type of place where someone else may drink your beer and laugh instead of apologizing, no matter if they're a trader, biker, boater, poseur, hipster, yuppie, soccer mom, hippie, businessman, Rastafarian, Hash House Harrier, river rat, clubber (prior to heading out), local, or suburbanite. Ages range from 20's to 50's. Casual dress is the rule, including Hawaiian shirts, Tivas, shorts, sandals, jeans, gym shoes, khakis, topsiders, sport coats, penny loafers, and don't be surprised if you find someone running around without a shirt, shoes, and minus a few teeth to boot. Leave the leather jackets and all-black garb at home. While pretension is refreshingly difficult to find at Slow Down! (except for a few pompous boaters), rowdiness abounds particularly when popular bands are up on stage. There was one time where two bikini clad ladies were so aroused by the band that they jumped on stage and showed their all. At these times, one needs to have a thick skin as the place can get totally packed especially when the band comes on. It was so crowded one night that the only way I could get to the bar was to walk right up near the stage where I promptly tripped over the saxophonist's mic stand. Fortunately for both of us, it didn't fall over and he didn't miss a beat. Expect a motley crew of loud drinkers but, on the flip side, everyone is usually having an exceedingly good time – sometimes too good of a time, which can get annoying...
"Life is too short to spend on this crowd"
– Shecky's Bar, Club & Lounge Guide 2002
The bartenders tend to match the vibe of the crowd and can be pretty entertaining as they toss bottles around and chat with patrons – just don't expect to get your drink anytime soon.
A Lurid History
Slow Down! opened in May 1999, apparently inspired by the owner's experience of selling all his belongings, buying a boat, getting beached, and encountering a group of friendly locals in the town of Felda, Florida, population 81. It was there that the owner's previous philosophy of "Life's too short -- whoever dies with the most toys wins," was transformed into simply, "Slow down. Life's too short." Today, Slow Down! is the largest of the Lodge Management Group, which also includes the Lodge Tavern, Hangge Uppe, Pippin's Tavern, Streeter's Tavern, Bootleggers, Mother's, Mothers Too, She-nannigans House of Beer, River Shannon, and Downtown Dogs. The odd structure that currently houses Slow Down! was actually built in the 1940's as an alternative to the snobbery of the Chicago Yacht Club. Since then, ownership has changed hands many times as not many establishments have been successful in this very industrial part of the city. One of the earlier establishments was an earlier incarnation of Slow Down! known as Rich's Mariner's Inn. Rich's was replaced by the Ile de France and was described in this way by Dennis McCarthy in The Great Chicago Bar & Saloon Guide (1985): "Now with the French decor, higher prices and extensive menu, it's more of a cocktail lounge on the river than a seaman's bar. However, you will find boaters and yachters in the summer tying up at the restaurant's dock and coming ashore for a meal or a few drinks. The place has brilliant white linens in the dining room, a dark leatherette cocktail lounge atmosphere in the bar, and Gallic decor. I've always imagined this as the perfect place for conspiracy meetings, adulterous liaisons, or secret rendezvous of any kind. Where else could you get a bottle of French wine, put your feet up, and watch the warehouses of Goose Island across the river?" One of the more recent tenants included the rough-and-tumble dive bar that opened in 1989, "Boondocks River Shanty / The Bridge Nightclub & Marina." The name came from the shanty-like structure that exists today, as well as for the iron-clad, Division Street bridge that spans the Chicago River about 30 yards away from the bar. Boondocks existed when gangs still held a firm grip on much of Chicago's North Side and prior to Whirly Ball opening just to the north along with the glorified strip mall that surrounds it. Boondocks then yielded to "Hot Tuna." The only thing going for Hot Tuna was Ladies Night on Tuesdays, an all-you-can-eat fish fry on Fridays and live music on Saturday nights.
Exhibit One: The Jameson Heist
Not really sure what to make of this drinking oddity? Allow me to submit the following for your consideration:
It was a hot night and I was eating soup straight from the pot it was heated in. I had just come to the realization that I am far more productive when I wear socks. Upon this watershed moment of my life, it was time to leave for Slow Down! to wish a "bon voyage" to an Aussie friend of mine who had just bailed from a job precisely because life's to short to deal with the insidious brand of shite he was facing each day. It was a grand soiree as we drink margaritas from fishbowls and reminisced on Cub losses, malevolent landlords, rooftop drinking, and The Footy (Aussie Rules Football, that is). We played foosball while listening to a band that played acoustic, electric and bongo-laden versions of the tunes you know. The girls tried to draw our attention by dancing suggestively with each other, but not even that would work as it was a heated match. After kicking some Aussie ass, we gazed lasciviously at a wooden-framed Jameson's sign, just above our table. We noticed that it was screwed into the wall by at least a half-dozen screws. A Philips-head screwdriver was then produced, and the heist began. As the the heavens let loose with a torrent of rain (none of us had umbrellas – why didn't we check the weather?), the sign was unscrewed from the wall and an escape route was identified through the bumper pool room, the rear deck and the shed where the garbage is kept in dumpsters. Not even a massive crack of lightning that struck a telephone pole 50 yards away could phase us. The sign was then smuggled through to a waiting member of our party that, to this day, proudly displays it above the bar in his Evergreen Park abode. To celebrate our morally-corrupt victory another member of our party got so excited that he threw a few plastic chairs into the river. As we came in, the busboys and kitchen staff sensed something amiss. They had a look outside but were fortunately oblivious to our caper. The rest of us promptly exited the establishment, piled into a cab that was miraculously hailed, and we were off into the night.
Exhibit Two: Wingfest
Perhaps now you are even less sure about Slow Down! Have no fear and continue on, kind reader...
Since 2000, Slow Down! hosts an extravaganza of modern poultry culinary advances known as "Wingfest," every February. WXRT 93.1 FM sponsors the event, along with Tyson Foods, Beck's Bier and Stolichnaya Vodka, with XRT's morning personality, Lin Brehmer, as host and judge of the hot sauce competition. Tickets sell for $15 (advance, $20 at the door), which amounts to twice that after all the service charges and taxes are levied by Tickets.com. Fortunately, at least the face value of these tickets went to benefit the Greater Illinois Chapter of the Multiple Sclerosis Society along with the proceeds to their raffle. Too bad Tickets.com didn't donate a portion of their extravagant service fees to MSS as well. MSS also did not benefit from my friend hitting on their members. If watching people breathe fire after gorging on more than 10,000 wings isn't entertainment enough (no exaggeration), Wingfest also features some of the best local bands. In 2002, the Rip Tones played (an excellent Southern-Surf Rock band like the Reverend Horton Heat) under the Cabana Deck's heated tent, along with Bloodshot Records headliner Waco Brothers who are more popular but not as good.
Each year, over 20 restaurants register to compete at Wingfest, and each serves out as many wings as possible to the ravenous horde of attending patrons. Each restaurant is allowed to enter three of four categories that include Hottest, BBQ, Mild, and Exotic. Judging is done by randomly selecting patrons as they enter Slow Down! along with one celebrity judge. I was selected to be a judge for the Exotic category in 2002 along with celebrity judge, former Chicago Bear and Pro-Bowler, Donnell Woolford. Trays of wings and free beers were then whisked in faster than we could handle, leaving me unsure to this day that the grade I gave each wing corresponded to the correct wing...
After all the votes are in, the winning restaurants are announced. In 2003, Lin Brehmer announced the wings from Bird's Nest as the "Best of the Fest" and Cactus was awarded the much-coveted 1st place prize for Hottest Wings. In doing so, Cactus had supplanting Hog Head McDunna's, who head earned the honor of 1st place for Hottest Wings in 2002, 2nd in 2001 and third in 2000 (as well as 1st place for Mild Wings in 2002, 3rd place for Exotic Wings in 2002). 2003 also saw Gator's Pub take home best Mild Wings and Exotic Wings (they actually won "Best of the Fest" in 2001), and Bird's Nest also won best BBQ Wings Other restaurant participants included: Goose Island, Sports Page, Culinary & Hospitality Institute, Yak-zie's, Boulevard Cafe, bw-3, Frantastic Wings, Beaumont Bar & Grill, Isaac Hayes, Hooters, Calypso Cafe, Slice of Chicago, DiMaggio's Eatery, and Dixie Kitchen. In my opinion, bw-3 has the best wings overall (particularly with their blazin' wings, spicy garlic, smoky southwestern, and teriyaki), and Cactus had the most excellent exotic wings. Hooters had the greasiest wings and DiMaggio's put "Joltin' Joe's" name to shame by having what seemed to be the worst wings at the fest with their "suicide wings." One guy was seen eating one of these wings, and then promptly throwing the remaining wings in the trash, and applying ice from a beer tub directly to his tongue. Additionally, another reviewer noted the following:
If you missed this year's Wingfest, don't worry. You might still be able to check out the annual cousin-event, Rockin' de Mayo, held on May 5th. If you check out next year's Wingfest, expect to get loaded and make sure you have easy and quick access to comfortable "facilities" that night and for rest of the next day.
The Lunatics Have Taken Over the Asylum
Slow Down! Life's Too Short is hard to beat, particularly in warm weather, for kicking back, listening to some tunes, downin' brewskies and margaritas, and enjoying yourself in one of the best cities on the planet (despite that somewhat fishy smell wafting in from the river). For additional amusement, check out the movie, "Never Been Kissed," and you might notice that one of the scenes was shot at Slow Down! As noted by New City Chicago: "Slow Down is shaping into Dick's Last Resort's laid-back cousin." I would add that, when you factor in events like Wingest and Rockin' de Mayo, the bands, and the excellent beer gardens, Slow Down! has rapidly become one of the most popular and best bars in Chicago. It's the type of place that Joe's and North Beach can only wish they could be. Just remember: if it's warm out, get there early. Then, slow down... For more information, check out the Slow Down! Life's Too Short website. See you there, Cap'n.
"We continued through Lincoln Park past more curious barflies and café-goers and ended up at Slow Down! Life's Too Short – a 'boat bar' right on the river at Division. The management was kind enough to let us bring our bikes through the restaurant and leave them on the back deck, as bike parking along Elston was limited. Patrons watched as bike after bike was rolled past their tables. The warm weather stayed with us as we took in breathtaking views of the skyline on the rooftop deck and enjoyed our beers after a long ride."
– Chicago Critical Mass Halloween Ride 1999