Cozy little wine bars have their place. Trendy martini lounges, too. But sometimes, you just want a cold beer, a platter of chicken wings and a place to hang out.
You want a spot where the food is hearty, not hip, where the dress code's casual and you don't need to know which wine pairs best with the sea bass.
You want your favorite pub.
It could be a popular microbrewery, or some under-the-radar bar and grill. But it's where you go when you need to kick back and unwind.
We know the feeling. So as we head into the hectic holidays, we pay tribute to a few of our personal favorites.
105 S. Cook St., Barrington, (847) 277-7400, mcgonigalspub.com
With its comfortable seating niches, cozy fireplaces and warm brick-and-wood decor, McGonigal's Pub is the perfect stop on a winter evening.
A short walk from the train station in downtown Barrington, McGonigal's, housed in a one-time bank, is ideal for an after-work Smithwick's, Harp or Guinness -- standbys you'll find at any worthwhile Irish bar. But McGonigal's doesn't stop there. The extensive beer list also includes offerings like Paddy Pale Ale, made locally at the Onion Pub and Brewery, and Breckenridge Vanilla Porter, a recent beer of the month and new favorite of mine after it was recommended by the knowledgeable McGonigal's staff.
Don't leave before dinner -- McGonigal's very tasty Irish fare is more than a cut above the usual pub food. There's Irish soda bread with the steamed mussels, smoked Irish bacon tossed into the fries, a savory porter sauce with the flatiron steak and much more.
McGonigal's doesn't take dining reservations, but a phone call in advance often prompts the hostesses to save a table. Live music starts at 9 most Friday and Saturday nights.
-- Diane Dungey
J's Sports Bar and Grill
816 E. Grand Ave., Fox Lake, (847) 629-5925
J's Sports Bar and Grill has had a rough go of it in the last year.
But, after being shut down for overhauling in July of 2011, this awesome sports bar is open again and better than ever.
In October of 2010, ownership of the always crowded Jimmy V's Sports Bar changed hands and, for some reason, was repackaged as a nightclub. That short-lived mistake closed after only 10 months.
When the nightclub shut down, Jason Justen -- a patron of the old Jimmy V's -- purchased the business and worked to rebuild it as it once was.
The place was repainted and completely cleaned, equipped with seven large-screen televisions for all your sports needs, and games like NTN Buzztime Trivia, Ski-Ball and Ping-Pong were brought in.
Not to mention, the food menu was changed, though the prices were brought back to where they were a year ago. In addition, the Buffalo wings -- which once placed second in a Chicagoland Buffalo Wing competition -- have returned. In my opinion, they're some of the best wings a person can eat.
The prices remain low, and the Bears games on Sundays feature an incredible spread of food. There are food specials, daily drink specials, and tons of activities for everyone, including Ping-Pong, water pong, skee ball, darts and indoor bags.
It's nice to have a place where I can watch the game in an establishment that I have long loved.
-- Lee Filas
8 N. Vail Ave., Arlington Heights, (847) 577-7733, peggykinnanes.com
In Ireland, a pub is just as much a meeting house as it is a place to get a pint of your favorite lager. Peggy Kinnane's fits the bill.
With a bar imported from the Emerald Isle and a cozy atmosphere to match, Peggy's is the first place I think of when I want to meet someone in the afternoon or evening in Arlington Heights. I love sitting at one of the dark, wood tables and chatting with friends over a beer, a plate of fish and chips or the spectacular shepherd's pie.
And with Ireland's reputation for great novelists and poets, Peggy's also is an evocative and inspiring place to write, something I do there from time to time.
Peggy's is a great place for diners of all ages. It offers live music on Friday and Saturday nights, but also has a wonderful children's menu. It even has a weekly coloring contest for young ones, with winners earning free meals for their artistic contributions.
-- Russell Lissau
O'Malley's Bar and Grill
701 Hill Street (Route 30), Aurora, (630) 897-8700, omalleysaurora.com
O'Malley's is a fun place with the expected spate of big-screen TVs, live music and karaoke, and an outdoor patio for playing "bags." On top of that, toss in a view of the 15th hole of Phillips Park Golf Course. But make no mistake: This is not an upscale place with country club pretensions; it's a blue-collar joint in the shadow of my favorite blue-collar golf course.
What makes O'Malley's special, though, is the quality of the food and exceptional value. Where else can you get a $1 draft beer these days? You can at O'Malley's on Mondays. Their jumbo wings are 45 cents then, too. Sauced six different ways. Terrific pizza (a 16-incher with one topping is $16.95), and the half-pound Angus burger comes with fries or chips for $5.99. Free pizza during Bears games, as well.
For the past several years, several members of our, um, Masters softball team have gotten together after the season for a round of golf at Phillips, followed by food and drink at O'Malley's. Always a great time. Wish we could get there more often.
-- Jim Davis
Lamplighter Inn Tavern and Grill
60 N. Bothwell St., Palatine, (847) 991-2420, lamplighters.com
The foosball table is gone, and so is the telephone booth from where I called my now-husband to ask for a ride home after one too many birthday drinks, but Lamp's, as it's affectionately known, hasn't lost its charm.
Longtime regulars hold court in the early evening at the first-floor bar where Budweiser is still king. As the evening wears on, twentysomethings make up the bulk of the late-night crowd. Still, it's a popular gathering spot for high school reunions, and on any given weekend you may spy a hearty contingent of 40-and-ups reliving their younger days.
A major renovation a few years ago added a dining room with standard pub fare, like chili, burgers and deep-fried mac and cheese, which oddly has turned Lamps into a place I'm more likely to visit for dinner with my preteen sons, especially in the summer when we can sit on the roof and watch the trains roll by.
-- Deborah Pankey
412 N. Milwaukee Ave, Libertyville, (847) 362-6688, mickeyfinnsbrewery.com
The beer and burgers served at Mickey Finn's in downtown Libertyville have changed over the years, but the small-town feel of the pub remains the same.
The look of Mickey Finn's has become more trendy, but to remind customers of the history of the business, the small model railroad that used to make its way along a track up near the ceiling of the bar years ago is still there, although now it runs back and forth from the back entrance up to the dining room.
The building holds history. For about 100 years, the brick storefront in the heart of Libertyville has operated as a tavern, with the exception of the Prohibition years, when it was turned into a barbershop, says owner Brian Grano. Legend has it, though, that even then there was a secret room in the basement where beverages were served, says Grano, who has owned the pub for about seven years. He expanded the bar to include a venue for entertainment and bands upstairs. The main dining room is popular for families.
And locals can almost always expect to see someone they know at the brewery, much like the times when Bill Sugars and the late Pat Elmquest owned the place before Grano.
As Lake County's first brew pub, serving handcrafted beer since 1994, there is an array of flavorful ales and lagers, from 847 Suburban Wheat Ale to Santa's Magic, a Belgian strong ale.
-- Kim Mikus
The Lodge at Four Lakes
5750 Lakeside Drive, Lisle, (630) 724-0450, thelodgeatfourlakes.com
Lying in the shadow of a popular yet semi-isolated ski hill, The Lodge at Four Lakes alternately doubles as a nightclub and sports bar. It lies within the Four Lakes neighborhood at the southeast corner of Maple and Yackley avenues.
During the day and early evening, all Chicago sporting events are shown on a number of televisions throughout the bar. At night, either a DJ or live band performs on weekends and entertains.
While the winter sees a perfect opportunity to unwind after a day on the slopes, the summer features an outdoor pool, complete with an on-duty lifeguard. But even if all of these things do not appeal to you, stop by for lunch on half-price Sunday or Wednesday to try out different items on the menu.
-- Marco Santana