Owner Mike Miller was interviewed in local Chicago blog Love, Chicago:
A punk at heart, Delilah’s owner Mike Miller oversees the bar’s nightly celebration of music and art, fueled by an eclectic booze selection. –Kim Rosenbauer
Tucked away near the intersection of Lincoln, Diversey and Racine in Lakeview is Delilah’s – one of the “most important bars in America,” according to Michael Jackson, a foremost international expert of beer and whiskey. More »
One of America’s most important bars. –Michael Jackson, Whisky Magazine
A few years ago, Jackson – who has written about 1,500 articles and 13 books on bars – told Delilah’s owner Mike Miller, 39, that in his opinion, Monk’s Pub in Philadelphia, the Toronado Pub in San Francisco and Delilah’s were America’s three most important bars. Not the best – the “most important.”
Originally built as a speakeasy in 1919, the bar became available for purchase in 1993. Miller opened it with a couple of friends, though for the past nine years he has been the sole owner – “the captain” as he puts it.
“The idea of Delilah’s is simple,” he says. “When I was in high school, I had three records and my buddy had two and my other buddy didn’t have any. So we’d go to each others’ houses and play each other our records and steal booze. We found our way into the nightlife establishments and learned more and more about music and hung out in more bars.
“Delilah’s is an offshoot of that,” he continues. “What we’re trying to do is offer people the best possible environment to have a good time based on my criteria. I am my target market. The bar is designed for my personal enjoyment.” Why a lady’s name, though? Miller, a former English major, says Delilah is the first femme fatale of western literature. “There’s also a really good Tom Jones song, ‘Delilah,’ which is based on the same story.”
Judging by the bar’s niche, enjoyment includes myriad beers and a famed whiskey selection. That’s not all, though. The bar includes an evolving exhibit of artwork created by local artists, frequent movie nights and well-known live D.J. nights.
The amazing thing is that Delilah’s doesn’t just dabble in all of these diverse features – it excels in all of them. It doesn’t merely offer a whiskey selection; it has been on Whiskey magazine’s best whiskey bar list for the past three years.
“The other bars on that list were all little bars in Scotland with 500 single malts,” he boasts. “Those whiskey guys come here, and they’re like ‘Whoa! There’s other things going on – it’s not just whiskey here!’ They go back to Scotland and say they had the best time at this crazy bar. I appreciate the accolade, but we’re not a whiskey bar – we just have a lot of whiskey. We also have tequila, rum, a lot of beer – a very interesting array of things.”
The bar – which features nightly drink specials and never any cover – includes an upstairs with a pool table, bar and seating, and it can be rented out for private parties.
Party Early and Often
At Delilah’s, every night is a party. Every night since its inception, there has been an event of sorts. Delilah’s features classic flicks, hosts CD release parties and has theme D.J. nights. It dedicates nights to everyone from Elvis to Van Gogh. Music spans generations and genres such as indie rock, ska and alt-country.
“Every day, something happens here that didn’t happen yesterday and won’t be happening tomorrow,” he says. “If this was just a bar that opened every day and had a jukebox and a nice selection of beer, I would have been bored a long time ago.”
In Miller’s opinion, one of the best events was when last year the bar opened its 5,000th bottle of Maker’s Mark and threw a huge party. Everything was decorated in red to symbolize the liquor’s trademark red “melted wax” cap. The night featured go-go dancers, confetti and free shots.
Another favorite is demo night for new bands. “You can bring in your band’s demo, register to have your song played, and everybody who comes in the bar that night gets an entry form to vote for their favorite,” he explains. “The band that wins gets a show at the Double Door and a day at Engine Studios in Chicago.”
Miller counted five people in bands just in the upstairs area alone the night he spoke with Love, Chicago.
“With that many people in bands, we’re certainly going to have our role in the music business,” he notes.
The look and feel of Delilah’s definitely harkens the punk aesthetic, which, incidentally, is Monday night’s music theme.
It only makes sense – punk is near and dear to Miller’s heart. “My discovery of punk rock was timely,” he recalls. “I graduated high school in 1984. In 1983 in Buffalo, N.Y., there was some pretty cool stuff going on. Music was more regional – Buffalo had a good music scene going on. A lot of bands came to New York through Buffalo. I got a fake I.D., I got a driver’s license, I got the Clash record and the Ramones’ ‘Rocket to Russia’ — and I never looked back. Punk rock is also a personal lifestyle.”
Don’t get Miller wrong, though. Just because of the bar’s punk rock roots, he doesn’t like to pigeonhole his bar.
“Delilah’s [isn't] this or that,” he explains. “It’s a canvas, and lots of things happen on that canvas. We do a lot of eccentric things around here that are extremely big in the little worlds they revolve around, but if we’re into something, we take it to the Nth degree.
“If you like dark nightlife, a rock ‘n’ roll environment and fancy booze, you’re bound to like us,” he continues. “We’re the anti-boring. This is how you meet people. You don’t meet them through Internet chatrooms. It’s hard to misrepresent yourself when you’re sitting here with a drink talking about similar interests. And that’s what we offer – that’s what Delilah’s exists for.”
Another part of Delilah’s mass appeal stems from its unstuffy staff. “In 15 years, we probably haven’t had more than 50 people work here,” he says, which is unusual for the high turnover usually associated with restaurants and bars. “People come in and they hang around a bit and maybe don’t catch on. Ana Lucia McGorty, 24, one of our bartenders, caught on the first day she worked here. Another guy brought a book – he didn’t catch on. People who work here, they want to be involved in something.”
The Ink Well
Delilah’s is not only a watering hole, but an ink well. Most of the bartenders are tattooed, giving the bar an added layer of “coolness.” Shawn Larson, 24, got his first tattoo when he was 18. He says he plans on filling in his whole body with art. While some of his tell a story, others are “just cool.”
He has a rocket filled in with the Chicago flag on his arm because Chicago is the “best city in the world.” He also has an ironic “Forgive Me Father” tattoo because he knew his dad would disapprove of it.
McGorty has life-size guns in holsters drawn on each hip that she says is a “power thing” and because she’s from the Southwest. The only impulsive tattoo she got — along with her two best friends — was one on the inside of her lip.
Eric Rosentreter, 26, who works the door, is more on the team spirit side as he has a “You’ll Never Walk Alone” tattoo that supports the Liverpool soccer team.
“If you like dark nightlife, a rock’n’roll environment, and fancy booze, you’re bound to like us. We’re the anti-boring.” –Mike Miller
Delilah’s has demonstrated it’s a sure thing in Chicago, but could it cross the Atlantic? Miller says he “toyed with the idea of opening this same bar in Spain, but I couldn’t have enough daily affect on it to feel comfortable. So it’s still on the table.”
As far as the Chicago location goes, “the physical nature of the bar is always improving,” he adds. “We make every effort to keep it up. All the bathrooms are clean because I’ll use them, too. There’s always something constant and always something unique that’s going on.”
Miller might not currently be franchising the Delilah’s name, but he’s definately proving his business chops as a partner in the new Bottom Lounge, set to reopen in March at 1375 W. Lake St. The new location hopes to serve as “Chicago’s favorite rock ’n’ roll bar as well as a prime showcase for up-and-coming artists,” according to Sun-Times rock critic Jim DeRogatis.
In a town where bars and restaurants come and go, it’s refreshing to know that Delilah’s is going strong, even with condos popping up all around Lincoln Avenue.
How does Delilah’s remain unaffected by the area’s real estate boom? Simple: “We are extremely good neighbors,” he says. “We clean the sidewalk and up and down the street, whether it’s our mess or not. Why not? We’ve been here for a long time. I know the alderman [Ted Matlak, 32nd Ward] and I go to the neighborhood association meetings. [Matlak] definitely doesn’t want more businesses to go, so he’s very pro-nightlife.
“His sister owned a punk rock record store – we have a good rapport,” he adds. “When you pick up the Rough Guide to the USA, and there’s four bars in Chicago listed and one of them is this bar – out of all the bars – that’s one more way I can argue, if I had to, that this bar is more important.”