At some point, near the turn of the Millennium, Bamboo Bernie’s shuttered its doors. The resulting void has left the college crowd, suburbanites, and locals with severely impaired judgment all with one less 4am bar to get schnockered in. As cheesy as it was, it was a really fun place where you could enjoy tropical drinks served in fishbowls, indoor sand volleyball, watching 21 year-olds yakking up their evening’s liquid intake at the bar, and dancing [read: wild, inebriated gyrating] to the hits of the day. Bamboo Bernie, whoever you were, we miss you…
The bar, not to be confused with Bernie’s (beer garden extraordinaire across from Wrigley Field) or the Bamboo Lounge (far South Side on South Chicago Avenue), used to be located on Lincoln Avenue, between Webster and Belden and across the street from its brethren bar, the “Big Nasty,” with its two story wooden Elvis sporting a bulls uniform nailed to its crusty wooden facade. Bamboo Bernie’s could be spotted at the base of a red-brick three flat, with a corrugated, black-painted metal awning with its name written up on it in bamboo script. This was complimented by the bamboo-encrusted facade below it.
Once inside Bamboo Bernie’s, you’d find a narrow front room with a long wooden bar running the length of the north wall. Here, someone would inevitably be puking their guts out anytime after 10:00pmfrom the aftereffects of shots served in test tubes, Hurricanes and the “Shark Bite.” The Shark Bite would set you back $15 and was an evil concoction the color of blue, served in a 90-ounce plastic fishbowl with a dozen straws sticking out of it so that everyone in your party could suffer equally. The finishing touch to the Shark Bite was the plastic shark dropped into it, filled with grenadine, so that it would like like blood was running out of the shark’s mouth and into your drink. That, or perhaps the shark couldn’t hold its liquor either. Bernie’s regulars were known to collectively finish off this swill in under a minute. While the Shark Bites are gone, have no fear: you can still get a fishbowl today over at Slow Down! Life’s too Short. Bamboo Bernie’s also served an eclectic variety of beer, including Dragon Stout (Jamaica) and Tsing Tao (China).
If brave enough, you could belly up to the bar and grab a seat on one of the barstools or snag one of the cocktail tables just inside the front door and along the south wall and under a thatched overhang. The best vantage point could be had up front at the window overlooking Lincoln, which offered prime viewing of the insanity inside and outside: cabs dodging the horde of staggering, jaywalking pedestrians, the queue lining up to get in at Bamboo Bernie’s filled with underage DePaul students sweating it out as bouncers with voodoo masks checked their fake IDs, and the bombed patrons spilling out of the Bernie’s, thus setting the bizarre cycle into motion again.
The best part about Bamboo Bernie’s, aside from its bamboo-encrusted interior, was the indoor volleyball court located in a brightly lit, two story chamber just beyond the middle bar, which was perpetually busy doling out Shark Bites to eager patrons. If drunk enough, you could cram 2-4 players per side and have a full out volleyball game on a small court with a tiny volleyball. Netting ran up to the ceiling so that the ball wouldn’t wind up in anyone’s fishbowl. One could also be fully entertained from the balcony above where all the hijinx could be observed and thoroughly laughed at without distracting the players below. Today, you can still find indoor sand volleyball, and leagues during the week, at North Beach (the bar) at Sheffield and Weed Street.
“What a great place that was… Too bad it isn’t there anymore.. We spent so many great nights over there! I was in Chicago for a year and together with my other au-pair friends (Michele, Lolo and Dilek) we got drunk many, many times due to the shark bowls and vodka jelly… which we always got for free, since we knew the bartenders very well. All of us were not even 21, actually I was 18 at that time… With our fake IDs we had a blast in Chicago, especially in Bamboo Bernies!– Christina, Amsterdam (July 24, 2008)
If you walked past the volleyball court, and the drunken antics within it, you’d find a swarthy “dance party” consisting of a loaded, boisterous mob consisting of college students, Suburbanites, roaming bachelorette parties, and city folk – all in their early twenties (I was proud to be one of them). Everyone swilled Shark Bites and other foul tropical concoctions while writhing upon benches and a cracked dance floor until 4am to the Top 40 of the day and yesteryear, usually spun by a stocky Asian DJ with a pouty face. This was where much of the action took place at Bernie’s and everyone’s good intentions ended. Newly met couples would then often retire to one of the hut-like alcoves up front for further conversation [read: snogging], which would then often be followed by a trip back to someone’s place and the inevitable crippling state of shame and embarrassment the next morning. If this scene is what you’re after, you can still find at at Beaumont’s over on Halsted, just north of Armitage.
“I just read your eulogy of Bamboo Bernie’s and was laughing out loud. I finished many a drunken night in my late teens and early 20’s at Bamboo Bernie’s. In fact, we just referred to it as getting Bamboozled. We would be at the Gin Mill or some other college age dump when we would declare it was time to get ‘Bamboozled.’ I also loved the fact that you could get Mai Tai like drinks out of faux coconuts and dance on the bar. As a 6’5” white dude, I had no business dancing anywhere, much less on the bar, but Bernie didn’t care. He accepted us all and never judged us, even in our drunken states.
“Sadly, while I was in law school, there was a Halloween Party at Blu. The place sucks. I didn’t even notice it was Bamboo’s until about an hour in when I went to go to the bathroom and had to walk downstairs. There, amongst the black painted steel, I felt a mixture of sadness, nostalgia, and anger. It’s a shame how the place has been desecrated. Bernie is rolling over in his grave about the fact that the bathroom has an attendant now.
“I will tip my cup to Bernie tonight at whichever late 20 something Lincoln Park bar I go to. He was a great man. God Speed Bernie.”– D.H. (October 8, 2005)
“I was a bouncer at Bamboo Bernie’s right after graduating from North Park College (University now) in 1992 and spent many a drunken night both there and The Big Nasty (Stupid Silly String). I remember one night taking the surf board off the wall and riding it down the stairs from the upper bar. That was pretty dumb, but it was a great time. I was in my early twenties as well and now am in my mid to late thirties. How quickly time has slipped away.”– P.H. (January 5, 2006)
While Bamboo Bernie’s has yielded to the tides of change and, sadly, transformed into “BLU” (a “hipper-than-thou” bar so pretentious that its owners could not be bothered to spell it correctly) and now MaxBar (not to be confused with the now-defunct MaxTavern), you still have options if you find yourself in a tropical mood. In such cases, I would recommend Ezuli for some Jamaican cookin’, and one of the best tiki bars in the entire US – Hala Kahiki in River Grove with its dark, bamboo lined interior and beer garden paradise out back. If you decide to visit one of these bars, be sure to hoist up your Mai Tai and toast the memory of Bamboo Bernie.
“Thank you for your editorials over the years about our past establishments in Chicago, Brother Jimmy’s and Bamboo Bernie’s. I loved Chicago and miss it still. We continue to operate four Brother Jimmy’s in NYC and a Bamboo Bernie’s in the Caribbean on the Island of St. Maarten; www.bamboobernies.net and www.brotherjimmys.com. One day I’d like to think that we will return to Chi Town with a few new concepts as well as a few old concepts. Your articles are generally fairly accurate. Especially your article on the demise of Brother Jimmy’s.”– Jim “Brother Jimmy” Goldman (January 4, 2006)
“I came across your website and it brought a tear to my eye to reminisce about the controlled chaos that was Bamboo Bernie’s, where everyone was welcome, the liquor flowed fast and free, and so did the patrons. I kissed more girls sitting on the stools in that place… but that is neither here nor there. My buddy Andrew and I were regulars of the place, and we have one story in particular that we love to tell: one night we were hanging at the front bar and a couple of DePaul students came in. Not knowing what to order, we of course offered up our expertise by taking the drink list and rating them all from one to five. Easy enough to do, as we had sampled every potion in the place at least four times. When we visited a few weeks later, we stuck our heads in the back bar. There was a surfboard hanging over the bar with the list of drinks that were served. Painted next to each drink were small surfboards that matched exactly the rating scale we left behind on our drink list a few weeks earlier It gave us great pride to know that the bartenders valued our opinions enough to paint them on the surfboard, and we’d always show off that surfboard to any friends we took there for the first time. I always wondered what happened to that surfboard.”– D.A. (October 23, 2006)