There may be no such thing as a free lunch, but with depression era-priced bar food specials crafted to get you in the door to drop loads of cash on alcohol, you can get pretty close.
The hallmark of these specials is the sub-$3 burger, but cut rate prices often means flaccid buns and mystery meat. Centerstage set out to find a few cheap choice patties that won't require gallons of beer to remove the bad taste.
Caramelized burgers and sweet potato sides at Union Park
Vintage silver cash registers, fake gaslight-style fixtures and a faux tin ceiling give this darkly lit West Loop sports bar a British Colonial Bombay and Company vibe. Step in on Monday nights for a little football, and for two bucks you'll score a cooked-to-order sirloin patty with bits of caramelized grill char on a sesame seed bun, dressed with your choice of ingredients and a side of fries. The regular fries are decent, but since you're saving big on the burger, ante up another buck for the crispy sweet potato fries.
The best of the cheap burgers: Beer Bistro
A hefty and juicy beef patty on a toasted bun, this was the best cheap burger we tasted. Get it dressed anyway you want; whatever your toppings, the "Bistro Burger," dripping in mozzarella and studded with spicy giardinara, will set your mouth aflame. Thankfully, this is also one of the best beer bars in town. Slurp down tap selections like Trappist Maredsous Dubbel or the Great Lakes Edmund Fitzgerald Porter to douse the flame. Tuesday's $2 price tag doesn't cover fries, but spring for a side order of the crispy tater tots, a mountain of shredded spuds served in a red plastic weave basket.
A princely bar burger from McCormick and Schmick's
McCormick and Schmick might be king of the sea, but it also serves a princely bar burger. While sipping cocktails and rubbing elbow patches with the Gold Coast set, you can get a half-pound cheese-topped or Cajun-spiced burger that eats like a steak from 3:30-6 p.m. for $1.95. If you're still hungry or you're looking for a side, the extensive happy hour menu includes a decadent creamy spinach artichoke dip, but since this is a seaside affair, you'd be remiss to skip the Baja fish tacos and the briny oyster shooters.
Great spiced burgers at Wild Goose Bar & Grill
Skip the dollar store and head straight to the Goose on Wednesday nights, where $2.50 will score you a sesame seed bun topped with charbroiled meat marinated in Guiseppe's secret spices and a pile of fries. This ain't Burger King, so you only get lettuce and tomato for that price, but if you still want it your way, you can upgrade with bacon, bleu cheese or a dollop of guacamole for 50 cents per item. Better still, there's no fear of negating the cheap food tab with an astronomical bar bill; all domestic draft beers are $2.75 and imports $3.75, ensuring you'll leave buzzed, full and with flush pockets.
Get your luxuriant Angus cut at Gamekeepers
Tucked in Lincoln Park West, this triangular corner bar with green metal columns, vinyl stools and tons of dark wood is pretty much like your old college haunt. And like those good ol' days, there's no need to have a full wallet. Poor souls passing through the neighborhood can still score a huge half-pound Angus burger for $2 on Tuesday nights. Dripping with flavor, the moist meat has rich grassy flavor, unlike cast-off choice cuts you'd expect in such a divey place.
More burger bargains
Poag Mahone's burgers were once named one of the "Top Twenty Burgers You Must Eat Before You Die" by GQ magazine. They're just $2.50 every Monday.