Hip, neighborhood creatives or slacker indie cognoscenti? Luminous, musician bartenders or mean, pretentious pricks? Boring, empty space or retro hipster haven? Love it or hate it? You decide. Nelson Algren, Vince Vaughn, Liz Phair, and James Iha have all left their stamp on it and I've wanted to write this review for years. It's notoriety goes a long way, as the Rainbo Club has been around since the 1930s, inspired a prominently featured tavern in a National Book Award winning work in the late 40s, was filmed in at least one Hollywood movie, and was where the photo of one major album cover was shot. Not bad for a Wicker Park hole-in-the-wall. While opinions may differ greatly, everyone is sure to find great booths for lounging, a pinball machine, photo booth, cheap booze, and funky music at Rainbo Club.
The Rainbo Clubyes that is the correct spellingis easy to spot with its bright red neon sign, signaling its location on Damen, just south of Division and near to other such notables as Smoke Daddy, Mac's American Food & Drink, and Gold Star Bar. The Place looks like an absolute dive from the outside with its lack of windows, metal grating, battered wooden door, hand-painted Old Style advertising, and ramshackle facade but those unafraid to step inside will be rewarded. Show your ID to the bouncer, sitting perched upon the stool just inside the door, and you'll find a dark, square space. In front of you stands the island-like wooden bar in the shape of a shamrock that dominates the southern portion of the room. You can get a pint from about a dozen taps, all of which is cheap compared to most other bars in the city. They even pull a decent pint of Guinness, though letting it settle for something less than the official two minutes. Cocktails are also available for a song, sometimes literally. You'll also find an endangered species behind the bar: an actual turntable, used by the experience bar staff to spin loud alterno-tunes that you'll pretend to know.
"i like rainbo. but i'm a hipster, so of course i do. drinks are always cheap, art is always interesting. music is always informed. if you're looking for a bar to blow smoke up your ass, be afraid. this place doesn't take anybody's shit, but it'll get you fucked up. i love you rainbo! see you friday."
"smokey" on Centerstage Chicago (January 24, 2007)
Behind the bar is the centerpiece of the room: a smallish, white-painted clamshell stage in the ornate style of old. The Rainbo Club dates back to 1936, when the stage was once used for burlesque dancers performing to jazzy music. One Chicago Bar Project reader told me that his father played the piano for strippers here during World War II. Today, the stage is used only to display artwork in front of a black curtain. On my last visit, I saw a rather large photo of a nude couple, similar to John and Yoko, sitting Kama Sutra-style and kissing each other. A brightly lit Christmas tree makes an appearance around the holidays. To the right of the stage is a mounted deer head with a cigarette in its mouth, clearly meant as the buck's commentary on the impending Chicago smoking ban. If you're sensitive to smoke, you may want to head elsewhere (at least until the ban takes effect, currently expected to happen in January 2008). Under the insolent stag and in the southwest corner, is a photo booth that provides unparalleled amusement.
Matching the black and red linoleum tile and red-tiled ceiling, four crescent-shaped booths of red vinyl are found opposite the bar, each with its own pole for hanging the jackets from your party. A couple of small two-tops can be found along the eastern wall that, instead of windows, offers a display case behind panes of glass with artwork presented by local artists (nude photos of women on my last visit, which fits in nicely with the Rainbo Club's history). I'm not sure if this arrangement changes regularly, but I'm sure Nelson Algren would have approved. It is said that this insulated the noise from any pesky law enforcement hearing the raging speakeasy inside during Prohibition.
Above the wood paneling that runs two-thirds the way up the wall around the room, and across from the bar, also features a rotating selection of local artwork. Recently, "MAN IS THE BASTARD," was spelled out in white letters on a backdrop of rainbow colored panels, framed with human skulls, presumably a nod to the 90s hardcore punk band of the same name. Retro-ists will also appreciate the pinball machine in the northwest corner, between the doorway through which bartenders regularly pull a trash can full of bottles, and the low-seated, red-vinyl couch and coffee table. Next to the couch are the single-occupancy restrooms in the western wall. The ladies' room reputedly has flowers. I wouldn't know first-hand, which is somewhat unusual for me. Lines start forming in the tiny, red-painted vestibule in front of the door and sometimes stretch back into the main room. Rainbo Club does not serve food, though the Tamale Guy makes an appearance at least once a night, and you'll find only one television, which happens to be switched off most of the time. Like the Tamale Guy, Rainbo Club only takes cash and they now have an ATM.
"This place is pretty cool. Sort of cheap, get the Budweiser. The music doesn't make sense: from Hank Williams to Michael Jackson to Kraftwerk. I got punched in the face for playing pinball while drinking a beer. I'm going back to fulfill my masochistic fantasies. If you show up in leathers and furs it's okay. Someone lit off fireworks here the other night; there was absolutely no reaction. I heard the guy from the Jay Davis Trio came in here to use once the bathroom."
"whitecapper" on Planet 99 (March 8, 2003)
"This place would rock the casbah if it wasn't for all the hipster doofus fucko's that end up there. Come on, dude... How much PBR are you going to consume just to play up your anti establishment persona. Whatever, let's see what you dress up like next decade. I hope the trend moves towards a more traditional Viking look. Or how about chicken costumes?"
Bob S. on Yelp (June 11, 2007)
As you would guess, all of the above attracts a neuvo-Bohemian crowd. You'll see lots of unusual facial hair, narrow glasses, indie rock band t-shirts, torn clothing, vintage dresses, vegans, a faint (sometimes strong) smell of weed, and the occasional four-legged beast. Some decry Rainbo Club as having a hipster-pretentious vibe and unwelcome atmosphere. I say that this reflects the insecurities of whoever feels the need to write such a thing. Granted, if you walk in with your Wrigleyville uniform (baseball hat, polo and khaki shorts), you probably will feel out of place. People also complain of a yuppie invasion, but old-school neighborhood denizens may take comfort that you can still get beaten up outside in the wee hours by gangs, just like in the days of old don't worry, stick with a group, take a cab or go home before 2:00am. The place gets packed on weekends, so head there during the week to avoid the crowds.
The Ukrainian Village was a different place prior to its regentrification that ramped up dramatically in the 1990s. The neighborhood was once quite poor, blue collar and predominantly Polish. This was the attraction to Nelson Algren who reveled in Chicago's seedy underbelly and used to frequent Rainbo Club, presumably for the "shows" as well as the impoverished, crusty regulars now emulated by many who love the place today. Some speculate that the Rainbo Club is one of the places along with Zagorski's Tavern (now Lottie's Pub) where Algren brought Simone de Beauvoir, known by locals as "Simon the Beaver," who he had an affair with when she visited Chicago, even though she was the lifelong companion of Jean Paul Satre (Algren, you old dog!). Rainbo Club is also said to have inspired Algren's fictional tavern, the "Tug & Maul," in his book Man with the Golden Arm that was later adapted into a movie starring Frank Sinatra. Speaking of movies, Rainbo Club was featured in High Fidelity with John Cusack (the "proposal" scene), and many believe that the cover to Liz Phair's first album, Exile in Guyville, was taken in the Rainbo Club's photo booth, exposed nipple and all. Gavin Morrison now owns the place, having taken over from WBBM radio announcer Alan Crane in October 1985.
"The sign above the cash register of the Tug & Maul Bar indicated Antek the Owner's general attitude toward West Division Street: 'I've been pushed, kicked, screwed, defrauded, knocked down, held up, held down, lied about, cheated, deceived, conned, laughed at, insulted, hit on the head and married. So go ahead and ask for credit, I don't mind saying NO.'"
excerpt from Man with the Golden Arm by Nelson Algren (1949)
If you like the Rainbo Club, you might also want to check out Club Foot (Wicker Park), Inner Town Pub (Ukrainian Village), Charleston (Bucktown), Skylark (Pilsen, possibly the same owners), Nisei Lounge (Wrigleyville), and Edgewater Lounge (Andersonville). For more information, you'll need to give Rainbo Club a call as they do not have a website, perhaps to reassure their regulars that they haven't "sold out." Rainbo Club hasn't changed since I first went there 10 years ago and the joint has outlasted a lot of its brethren, like Ten56, Artful Dodger and Augenblick, further north. Rainbo Club: like Sex Panther, it's made from real bits of panther, so you know it's good.
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"This is the bar where humor and irony came to die. Still, it's hospitable. One of my first visits to Rainbo came very late after a long night. I did two shots and passed out on the couch. However, waking up to a crowd of hipsters with groomed moustaches, girls with disastrous haircuts, and lonely young people reading books and current events magazines at a bar is the stuff of nightmares; it can also be any given evening at this place."
"mutineer d." on Yelp (June 10, 2007)
"People come here for attitude. 'Ooh, I'm a serious artist. Well, no, no one has bought my work, but what do they know?' Bonus: Painting of big-boobed babe with splayed privates."
The Official Chicago Bar Guide (1994)
Photo courtesy of Daniel Rangel