We've done these "best of" issues for a few years now, and whenever it comes to picking a winner for the "unpretentious bar" category, our readers go with Jack's on Carson. Doesn't matter whether you call it a dive bar, a "shot-and-beer" bar, or some combination of the two ... Jack's almost always comes out on top.
Now purists might see something suspicious about that. A true dive bar, they might argue, wouldn't be so popular -- at least not with those highly sophisticated, urbane readers who participate in the City Paper poll.
They'd also note that on a Friday and Saturday night, the place is packed right up to its glass-block windows and its neon marquee -- and that the clientele is often saturated with the just-turned-21 set. Such popularity is not surprising. The drinks come large here, and cheap. Mixed drinks are sold by the double; bottled beer can be sold for as little as a dollar on a specials night. Jack's is also strategically located, anchoring the western boundary of South Side's Carson Street funzone. For people into that sort of scene, it's the perfect place to start a pub crawl, or to end one. Or both. And while the bar staff's ability to serve drinks in such conditions is heroic, the place can get claustrophobic in a hurry.
But here's the thing. Take off work a little early, and hit the place in the afternoon. Optionally, go in to work a little late and hit the place in the morning: Jack's opens at 7 a.m. And yeah, you sometimes will find a customer there, hitting the sauce before you've had time for your morning coffee. Either way, you'll find a much different vibe: A handful of regulars perched there, passing the time as if they -- and only they -- have been there all along.
Maybe they have, and I can't really blame them. Jack's is a constant in a world gone awry. A few years back, I found myself hanging out at Jack's on Christmas Day. (Yeah, it's one of those.) It was one of the few places that was open, and it wasn't anywhere near as sad as it sounds.
There are, for starters, a couple of pool table-dart board options in the back. Plus, the bar is festooned with posters by local artist Rick Bach, who brings a Picasso-meets-Keith-Haring touch even to the sign notifying you that Jack's only takes cash. And a kind of solidarity springs up between people sitting in a bar on a holiday, no matter what their background. The guy on the next stool over could be into hedge-fund management, or he could be homeless. (With any luck, these two populations will soon have a considerable amount of overlap.) In a world where we are niche-marketed to death, Jack's is one of the few places where it's really possible to meet anyone.
True, sometimes a member of the frat-boy set, or some other highly spirited patron, feels a need to assert his beer muscles, and trouble ensues. And a bar that is cozy in the off-hours can seem downright oppressive around midnight on a Friday. (Those in the know seek out the back room whenever possible -- and whenever they can reach it.) But you can't argue with success.
There are a lot of Carson Street bars that draw on the weekends, but that you can't imagine hanging out there any other time. In fact, who even knows if they're open? Jack's, though, hasn't forgotten its roots. It somehow satisfies all the contradictory expectations people have of the South Side: It opens its doors to the drunken hordes who descend on the neighborhood in the evenings, but it also manages to hold on to the neighborhood authenticity that made the South Side attractive in the first place.