Behold the Malort wall, on Malortmas no less.
Chicago’s Wrigleyville neighborhood has transformed from quaint residential neighborhood that happened to house a historic baseball stadium into a massive entertainment district designed to extract as much cash as possible from visitors. Nisei Lounge lays claim to the last remaining dive bar in what is now a crowded, upscale part of town, a welcome change of pace from the polished and much pricier options nearby. While entire blocks of old dive bars have been leveled to make way for glossy condos, Nisei Lounge’s sheer existence is a testament to its enduring appeal.
While many dive bar names consist of puns, family names and neighborhood landmarks, ‘Nisei’ stands for a bit more, the word meaning second-generation Japanese immigrant. One often forgotten part of Wrigleyville’s deep, beyond baseball history is its association with displaced Japanese-Americans relocated to the area after the closing of World War II-era internment camps. Opened in 1951, Nisei Lounge gave some of these Japanese-American Chicagoans a place to congregate and swap stories. Over time, that original set of regulars moved away or passed on, but the heritage reflected in the name here is a bit deeper than the average dive bar.
Today, Nisei Lounge stands as antidote to some of the Wrigleyville pretention that has grown over the years, a devotion to Old Style and Malort a welcome alternative to other neighborhood offerings. The Chicago dive bar’s commitment to Malort in particular is so strong that stories persist claiming Nisei Lounge to be one of Chicago’s leading sellers of Malort (no small feat) and the Christmas party held at the bar is referred to as Malortmas, of course. The no frills attitude in a neighborhood full of frills seemed in doubt when the bar was put up for sale in 2010, but new owners Brian Pistorius and Craig Morall are committed to preserving Nisei Lounge as it always has been.
Famously and to that point, the Nisei Lounge interior has seen little renovation over its extensive history save a new paint job funded by the landlord-funded settlement resulting from a boiler explosion in 2014 as detailed on the dive bar’s web site. The bar’s original toilets have been replaced, new televisions added and credit cards allowed, but as clear as the faded Old Style sign having above the front door, the Nisei Lounge soul remains the same. The bar’s exterior is simple, large windows set into an aged brick building with cursive neon spelling out the name of the bar providing the space’s signature element.
The space inside is deceptively cavernous, the slim exterior façade giving way to a vast dive bar drinking environment that draws proportionately large crowds before and after Cubs home games. The bar itself crawls along one wall, a small island in the middle jutting out to provide a big of character and a communal aspect to the counter. Above, all manner of sparkling decoration hangs down from the black painted ceiling, most them Christmas-themed (my visit took place in July).
Nisei Lounge is fairly bright by dive bar standards, letting these stalactites do their reflective work. String lights creep through the space, adding a bit of warmness to the proceedings as the natural light fades away deeper into the dive bar. Opposite the bar, a large secondary room provides ample overflow seating that consists of hightop round tables and supporting cushioned stools. Televisions surround the red-painted room, decorations largely absent in favor of TVs, a photo booth, the bar’s ATM and the ancient jukebox stashed in a corner. A dart board corridor stretches off of this side room, a pair of boards anchored under flowing Christmas garland with chalkboards on either side.
If there was any mistake as to Nisei Lounge’s Malort dedication, the so-called Malort Wall clears that right up, row upon row of the clear, foul-tasting liquor along a ledge behind the bar. The entire collection rests under dual Chicago city and Malort flags, but maybe even more interesting is the collection of baseballs soaked in Malort in a glass jar along the same ledge. The concoction is apparently available for consumption, but this reviewer will admit to passing up on the opportunity.
Nisei Lounge is a crucial place in a part of town that desperately needs a good, classic dive bar to combat the rampant capitalism that has swept the neighborhood. More importantly, Nisei Lounge’s historical service to Japanese-Americans, giving these displaced immigrants a place to congregate at a point in time where that community was sorely needed provides the kind of authentic, communal foundation the creates the kind of love and admiration that exists for Nisei Lounge. Cubs game or not, Malort short or not, places like Nisei Lounge live in service to the community and do so with enduring, well-earned devotion.