Wood paneling and a beer on Polish Broadway.
Division Street in Chicago’s Wicker Park area has seen huge growth in recent decades, transforming the street into a city destination flush with upscale restaurants and bars. And then there’s Zakopane, one of the dive bar hold outs still left in the area, a throwback to when Division was filled with honky tonk bars and referred to as Polish Broadway. Zakopane’s heritage is on full display inside what is now a welcome dose of history and authenticity among some of the dive bar’s glossy neighbors.
True to its heritage, Zakopane is named after a city of the same name in Poland, the sign that hangs over the front door a depiction of the mountains native to that area, the word ‘Little’ affixed with what looks to be duct tape under the red lettering of ‘Zakopane’ above the mountains. “Town in the Mountains” can be found at the base of the sign, completing the wholly descriptive homage to the bar’s namesake. Large windows include bits of beer sign neon as well as references to the ATM machine inside servicing the cash only dive bar.
Everything about Zakopane is tinged with its Polish heritage, from the sign and name to the beer and liquor selection. Zywiec, a Polish import beer is available behind the bar, as is Zubrowka, a Polish liquor, both worth exploring on any visit. The vibe inside is one of a wood-lined chalet, fitting given the sign out front, the wood paneling game strong here from wall to floor to the bar itself. The bar counter features a coated wood grain design, an element that plays well off of the wood paneled trim above the bar area covered in string lights.
Zakopane is deceptively deep, the front area dominated by the bar and the rear room dotted with short tables and the bar’s pool table. Up front, the wood grain of the bar counter is matched by the design of the bar’s paneling, a very birch wood-feeling theme extend on and around this front area. String lights hang down from the area behind the bar, reflecting off of the mirrors that run the length of the rear area, all of it playing off of the liquor bottles arranged in front to impressive effect. Above, a handful of diamond-shaped mirrors provide another reflective surface to the light inside.
It comes as no surprise that Zakopane once held polka nights of some renown given the design of the rear room, the tables in back arranged in front of a red backdrop where it would be easy to slide the furniture out of the way in favor of a band. The wood grain theme extends its dominance in this rear area, the space a brown, wooden shoebox topped with a faded drop ceiling. Decorations can be found in spots, but they are minimalist by dive bar standards, a Bud Light sign here, a Chicago Bears framed poster there. Brown (of course) padded benches line each side of the rear room, spectator viewing for the pool table.
A handful of TVs encircle the space and string lights can be found in pockets along the walls, but Zakopane is an exercise in dive bar simplicity, a space that has obviously been around a long time and obviously decided somewhere along the way to change absolutely nothing despite the neighborhood’s evolution over the years. Looking at Zakopane as a Polish chalet dive bar that just happens to exist in the city of Chicago is probably the most accurate depiction of the experience found within, a wood-lined rectangle unapologetic and unchanged by time.