1750 E. 55th St. (5500S, 1800E)
Chicago, IL 60615
Not to be confused with the dive karaoke bar Hidden Cove in far north Bowmanville, the Cove Lounge has been keepin' it real in Hyde Park for decades. Cheap pitchers of beer attract University of Chicago students, a neighborhood vibe draws professors and other local riffraff, and a vaguely nautical theme brings in the occasional North Sider, perhaps following a meal at Barack Obama's nearby favorite, Dixie Kitchen & Bait Shop.
The Cove is housed within a tall, single story cement structure at the northeast corner of 55th and Everett Streets. An ancient, Art Deco marquee outside advertises "Cocktail Lounge," in white letters upon a black background and illuminated in the finest pink neon, though it is often unlit even at night. "The Cove" only appears in small gold lettering on one of the bar's windows to the right of the battered metal door that is made to look like it's covered with red-painted wooden shingles.
"The social situation in the Cove Lounge bears a striking resemblance to the after hours hijinks of a traveling circus."
– Shecky's Bar, Club & Lounge Guide 2002
Pass through the bar's threshold and you'll feel like you stepped back into the 1950s. An ancient mahogany bar that dates back to Prohibition runs halfway down the west wall and bows out in the middle where brass rails line up with matching taps with four beers on offer: Heineken, Miller Lite, MGD & Budweiser upon my last visit, and 28 more are found in bottles. The mirrored back bar is adorned with orange beveled lights and a harpoon that, combined with the ship's wheel chandeliers hanging from a black-painted cement ceiling and whale coathooks along the eastern wall near the door, completes the light nautical theme. Off-white painted walls otherwise display an array of framed beer advertising. Grab a high-backed, red vinyl barstool at the bar or across from it at a handy cocktail shelf if the bar is crowded.
Beyond the bar, the tile floor yields to worn red carpeting in the back, where you'll find a handful of low-slung wooden tables. The Cove is cash-only but you'll find an ATM back here, across from an internet jukebox that has replaced the popular antique variety once stocked with 40s-era jazz. A portal to the restrooms runs between them. Speedy once played jazz piano in this area, dating back to 1967, until new ownership took over and yanked his instrument. It is said that Speedy's jazz piano may have inspired U of C dropout Kurt Vonnegut to have written parts of "Player Piano" here. Additional entertainment is offered from a couple of old vacuum tube TVs around the room.
Portals from the bar area and an entrance just beyond them open into another room to the east of the main bar where you'll find wooden picnic tables that attract chess players, video games, a cigarette machine, more neon beer signs, and lanterns descending from more wooden ship's wheels hanging from the ceiling.
"When this place was the 1750, some years ago, it was a Hyde Park old timers bar with a sense of frayed elegance. New owners have come in, redecorated, expanded into a second storefront [replacing a socialist bookstore], and attracted the U of C student population. Many of the old timers have stayed on, and there's a pleasant barroom intermingling between generations."
– The Great Chicago Bar & Saloon Guide (1978)
Cove Lounge does not have a kitchen (though you might be able to snag a bag of nuts) and is more low-key than the ever-popular Woodlawn Tap, located further west on 55th. In this way, Cove Lounge is more similar to Falcon Inn, located a few blocks north on 53rd. Throw in a final stop at the New Checkerboard Lounge and you've got a pub crawl in the making, Hyde Park style.
The original nautical theme installed by former owner Dick O'Connell, possibly inspired by the now-defunct Ciral's House of Tiki located just down the block to the west. If you're into that sort of thing, you might also like Weather Mark Tavern (South Loop), Twin Anchors (Old Town Triangle), Simon's Tavern (Andersonville), and Castaways (North Beach). If you don't live in Hyde Park, you'll want to drive to Cove Lounge as you'll not find a nearby El line and cabs are expensive back to the North Side. For more information, such as if the bar is open or has been recently shut for serving minors (an occasional "oops"), you'll have call the Cove as there's no website and it is unlikely that there will ever be. Ahoy-hoy!
"Jimmy's and the Cove? They were what I'd call training bars -- like those little wheels on the bikes of three-year-olds. Jimmy himself was righteous, but that mystique about Nobel laureates swilling Schlitz there while perfecting new bombs on the back of cocktail napkins: not exactly. And the Cove was worse: as it looked seedier than Jimmy's, U. of C. kids could pretend they were grown-ups... one hot summer day my cat died, and I was upset. A really stiff whisky at the Cove treated the wound tant bien que mal. And that's about the only thing halfway good I can think of about the place."
– J. C.-L. (January 13, 2009)