Hidden behind Moon Palace Express, Nine Bar mixes up “Asian-ish” variations on Old Fashioneds and highballs
Up until now, Chinatown never had a cocktail bar. Sure, there was karaoke, and cocktails in restaurants, but not a bar exclusively devoted to the consumption of mixed drinks. But now it has Nine Bar, a new lounge that’s hidden speakeasy-style behind Moon Palace Express, the latest incarnation of one of the neighborhood’s oldest restaurants.
Nine Bar’s owners, bartenders Lily Wang (Estereo) and Joe Briglio (Blind Barber), describe the menu as “Asian-ish.” They’ll be using Asian liquors such as baijiu, soju, and shochu mixed with Asian ingredients like barley tea, Sichuan peppercorns, and Calpico, a yogurt-based Japanese soft drink. But they’ll also have whiskey, bourbon, and vodka on hand, and the cocktails will play off American drinks like the Old Fashioned, highball, and margarita.
“We want to have things that are interesting but approachable,” says Briglio. “We want people to be able to see the menu and see familiar flavors and have an idea of what it might taste like or how it might drink.”
The bar grew out of a series of Lunar New Year parties Wang and Briglio began throwing in 2018 at Moon Palace, which has been owned by Wang’s parents, Jones and Jennifer Wang, since 1995. The parties proved to be extremely successful: people were lining up to get in, even on a weeknight in February. This was unusual for Chinatown, which historically has had little to no nightlife.
“Chinese culture is not huge on bars and drinking the way American culture is,” Wang says. “People drink beer and alcohol to celebrate, but it’s not like they go out to get cocktails with friends.” And unlike its counterparts in New York or San Francisco, Chicago’s Chinatown remains quite insular: most real estate is owned by Chinese people who rarely rent to non-Chinese individuals, let alone sell.
Wang and Briglio were encouraged by the success of the parties, and when the pandemic hit in 2020 and they both found themselves out of work, they decided to turn them into a series of pop-ups around town with cocktails and bar snacks. “We wanted to brand ourselves as something, not just Lily and Joe throwing a party,” Wang says. They chose the name Nine Bar because the first character in the Chinese word for “bar” is pronounced the same as the number nine, which happens to be lucky in Chinese numerology.
Last year, the older Wangs began talking about stepping back from running Moon Palace. During the pandemic, they’d switched to takeout and delivery only and cut the staff back to just family — the two of them and one of their sons. Doing all the work themselves seven days a week had started to wear on them. They’d always planned to hand over the restaurant to their children, but last year, they decided to do it sooner than later.
But everyone was still very attached to Moon Palace, which has existed for nearly 50 years. So they decided that the restaurant would become a takeout counter with a slightly trimmed-down menu and the dining room would be converted into Nine Bar, with the help of Siren Betty Designs (which has worked on numerous Chicago bars and restaurants, including the Hi-Lo, Claudia, and Hide and Seek). Wang and Briglio were inspired by the industrial aesthetic of small alley bars they found during their travels in Tokyo and Hong Kong and also by the movie Blade Runner: corrugated metal, exposed brick, neon, dim lighting, and lots of things that are black. (“Joe and I both really like the color black,” says Wang.) DJs will provide music four nights a week.
The menu at Nine Bar will focus on specialty cocktails, including the Chu-Hai, a shochu highball with baijiu, Midori, and Calpico; a mai tai with Chinese almond cookie orgeat syrup; and the Good Fortune, an Old Fashioned made with Japanese vodka, Medjool dates, and plum brandy and infused with barley tea that mimics the characteristics of whisky. “It’s lighter on the palate,” Briglio says, “but it has that whisky flavor.” There will also be non-alcoholic cocktails, plus a modest selection of beer, wine, and sake, and shot-and-beer combos for their friends who work in the industry.
The snack menu will be brief, about 10 items, half of which will be vegan, all devised by Elvis Mom, a chef who formerly worked at the Spinning J bakery and soda fountain in Humboldt Park. He won the job at Nine Bar when he told Wang and Briglio that he’d been working out a way to make vegan milk bread. That bread will be served in the style of Hong Kong-style French toast, bruleed with palm sugar and served with a drizzle of coconut condensed milk. There will also be fried cauliflower in orange chicken glaze; a McKatsu sandwich made with Japanese pork katsu, American cheese, and spicy bulldog sauce on a sesame seed bun; and fries covered with Moon Palace’s mapo chili sauce.
Despite the success of the Lunar New Year parties, Wang and Briglio were still a bit uncertain about how the neighborhood would respond to its first cocktail bar. “I am a very Americanized Chinese person,” Wang says. “I’m walking the line between two worlds. I wasn’t sure how the people of Chinatown would feel.” But when the bar had its initial opening this past weekend, she was heartened by the response. “There were local residents of all ages,” she says. “People who had been here their whole lives, people who immigrated here, Asian Americans like me. They all had a very positive reaction. It was like they had always wanted this.”
Nine Bar, 216 W. Cermak Road, Open 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. Wednesday and Sunday and 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. Thursday through Saturday.
Moon Palace Express, 216 W. Cermak Road, Open 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesday through Monday.