One of Chicago’s oldest Chinese restaurants has become the mysterious site of Chinatown’s only craft cocktail bar.
Lily Wang, whose parents own Moon Palace on Cermak Road, opened Nine Bar with partner Joe Briglio on June 1, a dramatic new space tucked away behind her family’s restaurant.
“We describe ourselves as an Asian-style cocktail bar,” Wang said.
The personal and professional partners both worked as professional bartenders. She was last with Estereo and he was with Blind Barber.
“We liked the freedom of being able to draw on our previous work experiences,” said Briglio.
They started the concept that became Nine Bar in 2019 as a Lunar New Year pop-up at the Moon Palace.
“Lunar New Year is one of my favorite holidays that I have always celebrated with my family,” Wang said. “But I’ve never really been able to party with friends.”
“It made a lot of sense to us,” said Briglio. “Because it was the year of the pig, which is both my year and Lily’s mother’s year. It just felt like a nice connection.”
The couple pitched the idea to Wang’s parents, but there was some confusion at first.
“I think they got the impression that we just wanted our friends here for a party,” Wang said. “But we thought, no, it’s going to be real. We make cocktails. We will sell things.”
“And it ended up being pretty successful,” Briglio said.
In 2020, they held their second Lunar New Year pop-up called Dim Sum Disco, and then the pandemic hit Chinatown first and hard with coronavirus fears.
“My parents had already experienced a downturn in business just because of the fear of COVID,” Wang said. “It was just an all-encompassing xenophobic and COVID-related scare.”
When the bars closed, the bartender duo were out of work.
“Lily started posting pictures of bento boxes on Instagram, which was really just her lunch for us,” Briglio said. “And people started texting her and asking if they could buy her. I think that really evolved into what the Nine Bar Konbini became.”
The first iteration of the new brand started from there as a virtual pop-up with impressive food and drinks.
“Because of Moon Palace, we were very fortunate to share their space and use their liquor license when we first started making cocktails,” Wang said. “It was a real community effort.”
Two years later, Moon Palace has evolved into a completely redefined space, home to two new concepts. The former family restaurant has become primarily a diner, with the Nine Bar hidden behind a kitchen door.
But they’ve brought back a favorite sandwich that fans are familiar with.
“The McKatsu sandwich,” Wang said. “When we went back to our normal jobs, just bartenders, people were like, ‘When are you going to make the sandwich again?'”
It’s a panko breaded deep fried pork chop with American cheese and pickled radish.
The new Mapo Hot Fries were inspired by her father.
“My father’s mapo tofu is one of my favorite dishes,” Wang said. “And when I see loaded fries on a menu for me, it’s a no-brainer.”
Spicy chili pork, spicy mayonnaise and pickled peppers smother fries.
Chef Elvis Mom, most recently at Spinning J where he hosted a Khmer and Southeast Asian pop-up, handles the food.
Meanwhile, the Nine Bar Mai Tai from the original year of the Lunar New Year Party in the Year of the Pig pays homage to Wang’s mother and the history of tropical drinks in Chinese restaurants.
“The Moon Palace had old-school bartenders with sour mixes and pre-made juices,” Wang said. “But a lot of people really liked my mother’s mai tai. I think it’s probably because it makes them really strong. Ours is a connection and a tribute to it.”
They use fresh juices and make everything possible in house.
“We make orgeat with almond biscuits,” said Briglio. “We make a syrup out of the almond biscuits as the almond sweetener component. And instead of a traditional orange liqueur, we use the Apologue persimmon liqueur made right here in Chicago.”
An exaggerated garnish completes the drink, served in tropical glasses.
Low-alcohol and non-alcoholic cocktails are also on the menu.
“One of our favorite lower alcohol options is the highball section of the cocktail menu. It’s called Chu-Hai,” Wang said. Chuhais, short for shochu highballs, are popular in Japan and are often sold in creative canned flavors.
Their variation uses shochu, melon liqueur, calpico, and Ming River baiju, the Chinese spirit made from sorghum.
“It has some complexity from the baiju, like a bit of funk, but it’s a pretty neon green drink,” Wang added. “If you want a drink but don’t want to go crazy, you can still have a fun, cute-looking cocktail.”
Siren Betty Design, the design firm that subtly redesigned the iconic California Clipper, has designed the new Moon Palace and Nine Bar spaces.
“The front is meant to be minimal and a little bit nondescript,” Wang said. “It’s designed to look like any other Chinese take-out restaurant you would see anywhere in the country.”
The entrance to the bar is, as you would expect, the kitchen behind the counter.
“And then when you come in, it’s a very different vibe from the front,” she said. “It’s dark. It’s a little moody. It’s a little industrial.”
First come, first served at Nine Bar. You are seated at the bar or banquets. There is counter service for drinks and food, dine-in only, and a server is available on weekends. DJs spin Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays.
Along with craft cocktails, the new bar tries to bring back the sake bomb with Asahi beer and sake on tap.
“I think it’s great community fun,” Wang said. “We don’t do the chopsticks thing, but we drop the shot glass.”
216 W Cermak Road, 312-225-4081, ninebarchicago.com
Chef Kenta Ikehata just celebrated the grand opening of his second restaurant, two doors down from his critically acclaimed Chicago Ramen. Chicago Sushi just opened in Des Plaines on Monday. Ikehata features so-called three-second hand rolls that mark the time when you should eat the crispy nori wrap with warm rice and cool fish. He also offers “red hot chili noodles,” not found on the ramen house menu, with a chicken broth that comes in your choice of spicy hotness.
574 E. Oakton St., Des Plaines; 847-813-5647; instagram.com/chicago.sushi
Partner Stephanie Guerre’s family shared their recipes from Kalamata, the city in Greece famous for its purple black olives. Kala, part of the growing contemporary Greek restaurant scene across Chicago, has been serving in the Park West neighborhood of the Lincoln Park neighborhood since June 12. You will find a skewer plate with pork, prawns or keftedes. The latter are traditionally meatballs made with meat, but here they’re made with plant-based feta. In addition to the Greek burgers there is Granch, a Greek yogurt ranch.
2523 N. Clark St., 773-560-6412, kalachicago.com
Cooper’s Hawk founder Tim McEnery fell in love with Rome – with a pizza. The resulting Pizzeria Piccolo Buco fired their first pies on June 12 in Oak Brook. Collaborating with Roman chef Luca Issa, who creates a uniquely contemporary Neapolitan-style pizza with an unusual super puffy crust, it comes in three sauces: classic red, under-fried eggplant, and parmesan fondue; sweeter yellow tomato with four cheeses including gorgonzola dolce and nutmeg; and white, for carbonara made from guanciale plus salted egg yolk.
1818 Oakbrook Center, Eichenbach; 630-592-8885; piccolobuco.coopershawk.com
Former Rye Deli + Drink chef Billy Caruso has created a new concept for the hotel, taking over the old premises of the Ace. Selva, a rooftop cocktail bar, began pouring at the Emily Hotel in Fulton Market on June 10. Beverage Director Cristiana DeLucca, previously at The Office at The Aviary, pairs a Mexican-inspired menu (think chicharrones and queso) with a signature daiquiri blended with Uruapan Charanda Blanco, a rum-based spirit, and quinola passionfruit liqueur.
311 N. Morgan St. (at the Emily Hotel), 312-764-1934, selvachicago.com
Chef and partner Mitch Kim, previously at Toro Sushi just down the street, is behind the counter again. Sushi Hall, a Japanese-inspired restaurant, just opened June 17 in the Lincoln Park neighborhood, a few doors down from The Wieners Circle. You can get a spicy tuna crunch roll now, but will have to wait for the wagyu beef fried nigiri to come soon.
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2630 N. Clark St., sushihallchicago.com
Reve BurgerChef Curtis Duffy’s unlikely pandemic pop-up Ever restaurant, which ranks among the city’s best cheeseburgers, is closing for good on July 2 in the West Loop as its temporary home is slated to be demolished for a new tower .
The darlingthe cocktail bar with burlesque performances, in the West Loop suddenly closed on June 12 after nearly four years of operation, and the business was bought by another hotel group.
vajrathe chef-run Indian restaurant, which just retained its Michelin Bib Gourmand status in the guide published in April, unexpectedly closed in West Town on June 19 after failing to weather the socio-economic fallout from the pandemic.
Know of a Chicago area restaurant that’s new and noteworthy? Email food critic Louisa Chu at email@example.com.
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