Amateur Diving

[from Reservoir, May 1, 2007]

What makes a bar a dive? Is it broken stools lined up along a crusty bar? Tables made out of empty kegs? Poor lighting? Old Tom Waits albums playing softly in the background?

Under normal circumstances, any of those things would register a resounding “yes;” any place touting all of them would qualify without any doubt whatsoever. In the case of Streeter’s Tavern, however, the discussion gets complicated.

While the basement location screams to the world that yes, this might be the hellhole you’re been looking for, it’s hard to exude any kind of low-grade charm when you’re two blocks off of the Mag Mile. For all its Old Style signage and high-proof swagger, the crowd and the address work against any pretensions of rock-bottom boozing that Streeter’s might otherwise be able to pull off.

By the same token, those very pretensions make Streeter’s unique in this part of town. Where the hotel bars do everything they can to protect visitors from the scary world outside, and where the clubs up and down State and Dearborn streets shield themselves from reality by any means necessary, Streeter’s honestly does not care what you think of it.

Yes, the TV’s are all small tube models. Yes, the outdoor seating has only a view of Jimmy John’s or the Cingular store or shoppers. Yes, in-house food is only available for lunch unless you want to order from Downtown Dogs. Yet somehow, those things don’t matter, because who goes to a basement bar for the food or the seating?

A look around the room makes the answer loud and clear: no one. Whether it’s the two sharply-dressed men at the bar celebrating the taller one’s birthday, or the group of friends putting away shot after shot, or the table of three young women trading notes on their new lovers and newer shoes, people come to Streeter’s for nothing more than a place to drink and not worry about what’s going atop that flight of stairs.

Or, in the case of the two guys in Loyola sweatshirts, to play pool, foosball and ping-pong, all of which Streeter’s can truthfully boast.

Ultimately, whether or not Streeter’s is the real thing is almost irrelevant, although it’s hard to see how another outpost of the Lodge chain of bars could be so brazen as to try and manufacture old-time gin joint appeal. But as far as most of the bar’s patrons go, I suspect authenticity is entirely beside the point.

So what makes a bar into a full-out dive? There might be too many answers for one man to grasp, but it’s safe to say Streeter’s $6 mixed drinks are certainly not among them. Here’s raising a glass to mistaken identities.