Lava Lounge

Editor’s Note II: Lava Lounge has reopened! It can be found at 1270 N. Milwaukee Ave.

Editor’s Note: Like it’s neighbor Ten 56 to the south, the Lava Lounge closed in 2006, though sources claim a new location will open at Ashland and Division in September 2006.

In the Ukrainian Village, which could be the Chicago neighborhood with the most funky bars per square meter, the Lava Lounge stands out for its seriously cool yet mellow vibe – the hallmarks of any true lounge. While I’m not one to promote their use outside of clubs (if even then), even the DJs contribute to the mix at Lava specially with female turntablist night on Wednesdays, as does the vintage furniture and psychedelic decor. Having opened in February 1995, the Lava Lounge is a worthy successor to the Zig Zag Lounge and fits in well with other Ukie Village mainstays like the Inner Town Pub, Cleo’s and the Rainbo Club.

The Lava Lounge can be found on Damen just north of Chicago and south of rival lounge Ten 56 and Ola’s Liquors with its “zimne piwo” sign. Though its red-brick facade was previously unassuming and perhaps even a little forbidding with its dark front window covered in metal lattice so that you can’t see inside, they’ve recently spiced up the exterior by painting flames upon wood. Step through the front door and, as described in Shecky’s Bar, Club & Lounge Guide 2002, “You enter a bar that could easily double as a bat cave and are immediately greeted by the DJ booth sitting dead center like Jabba the Hut…” The front room is fairly narrow, with a long wooden bar that runs down the north wall but, sans cocktail tables, there’s plenty of room to get your groove on. DJ’s spin hip hop (Thursdays), house (Saturday night), reggae (Tuesdays – selected Best Reggae Night by New City Chicago in 2001), retro, and various other dance music while patrons writhe on the worn wooden floor towards the front of the bar. While most other bars of the same name, including those found in Toronto, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Stamford, Pittsburgh, Seattle, Eugene, Cleveland, Orlando, Minneapolis, Las Vegas, Montreal, Swindon, are named such because of a tiki theme, Chicago’s Lava Lounge instead takes its name from the red glow emanating from lava lamps behind the bar and an array of multicolored 70’s era glass lamps that shed their light upon red-painted walls and curtains. On the other hand, a few tiki idols have been placed next to the lava lamps and the large selection of Lucky Strike cigarettes, which they’ll courteously open for you upon ordering. The bar also features a good selection of belly wash, including a rotating selection of microbrews and such ethnic blends as Kirin and Franziskaner as well as an intriguing selection of Scotch in the tradition of Duke of Perth, where the owner formerly tended bar. The Lava Lounge also features a monthly “Cheap Shit” menu, which has recently featured Heineken and Red Stripe at $2.50 a bottle on Tuesday nights. A rather large, bronze disc illustrating all 12 signs of the Zodiac in pie-piece increments, which hangs over a curving white couch, rounds out the eclectic furnishings in the front room.

At the back of the front room, you’ll find a set of linoleum-covered steps that lead up to the back room, half a floor above. This area formerly served as storage for the Zig Zag Lounge but now offers two seating areas on your right, placed in front of the windows in the north wall. There’s also a side room, which provides two more couches, additional offbeat lighting, a coffee table, and walls that look like they were painted by the same chap that did the lighting in the Magic Christian (clearly Ringo Starr’s finest film). Just beyond this psychedelic hovel is the Kittens’ Room (women’s bathroom), which even features a couch for the ladies to take a breather from the hot-and-bother and is located next to the payphone and cigarette machine. The men’s can be found around the corner and features more red paint, very high ceilings and a stall with swinging doors – get in there, cowboy. Another red-painted seating area can be found way in the back with one last couch and stairs leading down to where the gimp is currently kept and where the public is kept out due to Chicago’s tyrannical liquor licensing laws. Let’s hope their extension license goes through soon so they can open up the basement so that the gimp can have a break and we can all take advantage of the pool table, couches and another bar. They used to have a free pool table in the back room but yanked it out at some point. Although the backroom does not feature a second bar, you’ll be happy to note that a waitress will take your orders along with your feeble attempts at wit (yes, I am speaking from experience). Overall, the back room leaves you with the feeling that the Lava Lounge may have originally been a home or perhaps crack house that someone transformed into a bar in the same spirit as Danny’s Tavern – there’s even a black bathtub in the women’s bathroom, filled with rocks and candles.

The crowd at the Lava Lounge is easily the bar’s greatest attraction, whether it’s prime time or during the week. Whenever you come in, you’re sure to find bizarre fashions, unusual facial hair designs and a plethora of thought-inspiring tattoos. The swanky vibe is further enhanced by the people of varying ethnicities, economical situations and views on whether or not bank signs display the temperature accurately or are artificially high to attract attention to the bank in a subconscious attempt at branding. If they’re not at the Get Me High Lounge, Club Foot or are still looking for a regular hang since Tuman’s Alcohol Abuse Center went under, they’re probably here. The crowd gets even more entertaining as the night progresses (or regresses in my case), particularly considering there’s no food at the Lava and alcohol has a very interesting effect on empty stomachs… On the other hand, the “Tamale Man,” “Bread Lady” or other vagabond vendor may come along at some point to peddle their wares to vulturous patrons, as they do at other bars in the hood. Come to Daddy.

“The more you ingest, the more the ceiling moves in the private psychedelic chambers.”

The Official Chicago Bar Guide (2001)

The Lava Lounge has succeeded where other bars like the Gramercy, Sopo and Matisse have failed. Owner Chris Ongkiko has created a quasi-club lounge atmosphere that is laid-back and without pretension, but sufficiently lecherous to provide enough entertainment and maybe even a hook-up – a combination seemingly as unusual as the owner’s last name. In addition, the Lava Lounge has helped make the Ukrainian Village (both East and West) one of the trendiest neighborhoods in the city, rivaling that of Humboldt Park, Bucktown and Logan Square. Bartender Brian Leahy was even awarded “Best Bartender” by Barfly Newspaper in 1995. So when you feel like getting some aberrant hijinx going, head on over to the Lava Lounge. See you there, funky butt.