For 9,729 consecutive days, Delilah’s threw a party. The Lincoln Park punk rock bar and whiskey heaven opened in 1993, and it’s still an outlier in a neighborhood full of new condos and a bar scene littered with corporate establishments. Things were going great until the pandemic. Closed for 16 months, Delilah’s wasn’t sure if that party would ever resume. But luckily, it has, and it’s still a great party.
This month, Delilah’s will celebrate 30 years of being in business. There’s an anniversary party planned for August 31, but when every night is a party, there’s no need to wait to celebrate. We spoke with Delilah’s owner Mike Miller about running an outlier space and what it’s like offering $1 beer specials and three-figure whiskeys under the same roof.
InsideHook: You survived seemingly everything, including gentrification and the pandemic. Do you think there’s a secret or is it just you plugging away with something you know?
Mike Miller: I think that that kind of sums it up: we’ve been the same for 30 years. We opened before the categorization of our industry. Now if you go to a social media site, you’re identified: you’re a sports bar, you’re a beer bar, you’re this kind of place. I try to explain to people that this is Mike’s bar — I’m the target customer. When I look around right now and on any given night, there are people in their early 20s, people in their early 80s. So, why, right? Why is it if I’m the target customer, there people of all walks of life, genders and age groups coming into the bar? I think we offer a unique experience. We’ve been here for all this time, and we have all of these things that are sort of what we do: music, film, art, the whiskey stuff, the different spirits and beer stuff, which is just not the norm now.
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When you opened, you were a destination bar for a lot of beer and bourbon aficionados. Now you can go into any chain grocery store and find amazing beers. Are you still attracting the same type of beer snob as you were 30 years ago?
When we were closed, I found an old flier from the early days, and it advertised 150 beers and 150 whiskies. That was not the norm for beer — or especially for whiskey — in the early ’90s. There were really only a handful of places around Chicago that were specialty beer places: Map Room, Hopleaf, Quenchers, Delilah’s. We had the first handle for Goose Island, we had the first handle for Three Floyds.
The whiskey part was definitely a different thing. A writer in Louisville, Kentucky, in the mid-’90s wrote that the best place in America to drink American whiskey was Delilah’s in Chicago. And she was writing for a Louisville paper. That caused a big stir. People tell me regularly, “I’m going to open a whiskey bar.” I tell them not to open a whiskey bar. Start to acquire whiskey, start to develop a collection, let somebody else say you’re a whiskey bar.
Well, let’s do that math right now. How many bottles of whiskey do you offer?
A thousand. We just launched our 1,000th option. I got a little obsessed with the bizarro world that is the current access to mezcal, so the upstairs bar has transitioned a little bit — there are 150 agave spirits up there, and the rum collection has migrated to the upstairs bar. On any given night, you could come in and sample 1,500 or 1,600 beer, wine or spirits.
Are you willing to tell me how much you pay a year in insurance for those bottles?
The insurance just went up.
I’ve been to Delilah’s more times than I can count. I remember going on my 21st birthday, which was great because it was a Monday, and at the time you had $1 PBRs and $2 shots of whiskey. And that was almost 20 years ago. Now it’s $1 Old Milwaukees and $2 shots of Jim Beam on Mondays. Why keep that price point when seemingly everyone else has gone up to at least $2 or $3?
People don’t really run that kind of special anymore, but I was a 21-year-old punk rock kid, too. I’m regularly told I don’t charge enough across the board. I just think we’re a rock ‘n’ roll party bar first, and I want people to be able to afford to come here, no matter what their financial situation is.
We were closed for 16 months, and I wasn’t sure how things were going to shake out when it came to people’s experiences being at home. Were they going to say, “Well, this is what it costs for me to be at home”? Or were they going to be like, “I’m so sick of being at home, I can’t wait to go out there”? Was there going to be a year-and-a-half of people turning 21 who’ve never gone to a bar? We didn’t know. But what I found is that while people have figured out what it costs to be at home — and that’s always going to be part of the equation — a lot of people just couldn’t wait to see what it’s like to be able to go out.
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