Big Joe’s

Chicago, Illinois

Johnnie's Tavern - Columbus Dive Bar - Exterior

In Short

A review of Big Joe’s requires mention of the dive bar’s signature feature, Friday night turtle races that can be controversial for some. Not controversial is Big Joe’s status as a classic Chicago corner neighborhood pub, the kind of place that welcomes a steady stream of locals, using yes, turtle races, as well as group Jeopardy watch parties each weekday to create the kind of camaraderie found almost exclusively at dive bars.

Field Rating

8

out of 10

Turtle races and Jeopardy is a hard mixture to turn down.

Field Note

No review of Big Joe’s can go more than a sentence without the phrase ‘turtle races’ involved. Located in Chicago’s Bowmanville neighborhood, Big Joe’s features, you guessed it, live turtle racing every Friday night that draws heavy crowds with strong incentives to drink, making for a lively evening. The practice of turtle racing is, of course, not one that everyone agrees with, but those assembled no doubt look at it as a unique diversion in a city full of things to do.

There is more to Joe’s than just turtle racing, but given the notoriety generated by each Friday night’s festivities, it’s fair to go into the details of what an evening of turtle racing entails. Before the races kick off, each drink or shot purchased is good for one raffle ticket, creating the set of circumstances needed for a pretty jovial crowd by the time the actual races roll around. From the raffle tickets distributed, five lucky winners are chosen ahead of five races (25 winning tickets in all), each winning ticket earning an entry attached to one turtle.

Though the raffle ticket system certainly incentivizes drinking in quantity, local wisdom cites the importance of pacing.

Whether any side betting takes place is unclear, but when the turtles are released, the one that makes it farthest from the center of the large board setup in the back of the bar wins the race. Each winning turtle sponsor receives a t-shirt and each raffle winner representing the last place finisher (probably Yolanda) snags a free beer at the bar for their trouble. Though the raffle ticket system certainly incentivizes drinking in quantity, local wisdom cites the importance of pacing in order to take in a full night of racing. The global pandemic of course put a damper on the turtle racing festivities at Joe’s, but the race schedule has returned to Joe’s to the relief of many.

In non-turtle racing news, Big Joe’s is a great corner bar in a part of Chicago with numerous strong dive bar drinking options. The sign alone is worth a visit, the visage of a man one can only assume is Big Joe himself looks down on the front door from a green and white sign attached to the brick-clad building. The space opens up into two levels, a lower area with the bar counter and an upper area with overflow seating, dart boards and the well-covered turtle racing on Fridays. The wood paneling stretches carpeted floor to drop ceiling here, providing that warm dive bar glow to the room.

The bar itself stretches around a curve, providing for a community atmosphere among the largely local crowd on non-turtle nights. Happy hour includes a volume-up, team viewing of Jeopardy where a correct, written guess at Final Jeopardy earns a free beer. Plaques cover the walls here, largely related to the darts heritage of Big Joe’s with one board on the second level and an additional two boards in the main room. Given the corner neighborhood nature of Big Joe’s, it comes as no surprise to see framed photos of locals dotting the walls throughout.

A turtle crossing sign anchors the main floor with the much more compelling custom neon turtle sign hanging above the dive bar’s pool table.

Of course, given the signature Big Joe’s Friday event, turtle signage can be seen in spots throughout the bar. A turtle crossing sign anchors the main floor with the much more compelling custom neon turtle sign hanging above the dive bar’s pool table on the second level. Sporadic seating can be found in this overflow section that includes Big Joe’s restrooms in addition to the aforementioned pool table and dart boards.

Big Joe’s is in many ways the classic Chicago dive bar, anchoring a street corner with a local clientele and a community vibe. Of course, turtle racing steals the headlines anytime Big Joe’s is mentioned, a trait that sparks mixed feelings, but beyond Friday nights, this is a warm, wood paneled, cash only dive bar anchor to the Bowmanville community that surrounds Big Joe’s.

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The Basics

1818 W Foster Ave
Chicago, IL 60640

Classification:
Neighborhood Bar

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