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[Photograph: Josh Conely]

Trying to define a dive bar is about as taxing as trying to describe a hipster. It's not something you can necessarily quantify, you just know one when you see one, right? There are commonalities among them, sure, but part of the mystique of being a bona fide dive bar is in the history, the attitude and intangibles. And Skylark has them all.

This place is tough to describe, perhaps in part because so much of it is shrouded in darkness. But I guess I'll start with the purely physical descriptors. There is a lounging area in front, a pair of decorative rifles on the wall. A good-sized bar, framed flags adorning it. A pinball machine. An old-school photography booth. Those coveted semi-circle diner booths.

And as for the intangibles, someone else described Skylark to me years ago as an artist's enclave. And there is a certain Bohemian electricity in the air, or maybe it's just the noticeable din of actual conversations against the absence of television. It's somewhat of a hipster hideout. It's very grandparent basement-ish. If you simply turned all the lights on, it could probably be mistaken for an Elks Lodge, circa 1969.

And the food? I guess I would describe the food as somewhere between Midwest comfort and upscale cafeteria. And that is in no way a slam. It's simple, hearty fare—perfect for soaking up those cheapest-in-the-city craft beers.

There may be no sweeter question to hear in a restaurant than "You want fries or tots with that?" Right? As soon as I hear that, I get that wonderful combination of happy surprise and genuine excitement all rolled up in childhood nostalgia, then deep fried. Like that song from the 80s that you've long-since forgotten about, then you hear randomly on the radio, tots take me to a special time and place. At Skylark, that transcendental experience will only set you back $3.50, or get the deluxe package for an extra buck with honey mustard, ranch, and barbecue sauces. They are crispy (not greasy), salty, and piled high. A must.

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The potato and cheese pierogies ($5.50) are pan-fried to a gentle crisp, almost like gyoza, and served with sour cream and apple sauce. What they lack in presentation, they make up for with pure plumpness and rich, savory filling. Simple and delicious.

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The mac & cheese ($5.50), again, is simplicity personified. Served in a lunchroom-style bowl with a few toasted breadcrumbs on top, it won't win many presentation awards. But a very simple spice profile (read: black pepper) lets the old ooey-gooey speak for itself over perfectly al dente elbows. It is hearty, belly-warming, and nearly a meal in itself.

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The Panko-breaded fried chicken breast ($10.50) with portabella gravy is not complicated, but it works. Crunchy on the outside, moist and tender inside, it is nicely cooked. And the earthy, savory gravy doesn't smother it; if anything, I could have gone for some extra. It is served with some simple, complementary mashed potatoes and a forgettable mixed green salad.

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The porter cheese dip ($5) is for the health nuts. The cheese is nice and sharp, and the beer gives it a noticeable bitterness, but it is a bit too thick and unwieldy, it did not outlast the generous bevy of toasted pita chips and veggies.

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Skylark is a cool bar, yet unpretentious. The clientele largely prefer anecdotes to status updates; there is no Wi-Fi, nary a MacBook in sight. As you might have guessed, it is cash only. But there is a friendly, communal vibe about it. The full-handed waitress spilled some tots in the middle of a few tables on her way to the kitchen. After the collective moment of silence for the fallen tots, about four of us tried to help round them up. Of course, with the lighting, it was the equivalent of trying to pick marshmallows out of a snow drift. It made for a fun game, a few cheap tot jokes. What else do you really need?

Skylark

2149 South Halsted Street, Chicago, IL 60608 (map)
312-978-5275
Skylark

Josh Conley is single-handedly trying to re-introduce the verb beget into the everyday lexicon. He traveled to Easter Island one Christmas out of sheer irony. He excises a hefty syntax, and shamelessly promotes the color orange. His wife begat him two small children that he regularly belittles HERE.

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