Editor’s note: though the owner is trying to resist, it seems that the days of Nisei Lounge are numbered… A recent deal to sell the bar to a group of investors that own another bar in Wrigleyville fell through and it looks like Nisei will continue its life at least through the end of Fall.
An island within a sea of sports bars, the Nisei Lounge is a Wrigleyville oddity. The Nisei is more of a neighborhood tavern influenced by the area in which it is located, but has a character all its own. As a result, the Nisei is a great place to have a quiet drink even when chaos reigns due to Cub games and on the average Wrigleyville weekend.
Let the lone Old Style sign hanging out front guide you to this hard-drinking oasis, which retains the oldest liquor license in Wrigleyville. The Nisei is located on Sheffield, one and a half blocks south of Wrigley Field, between the Yard (formerly Pepper Supper Club) and Dark Horse Tavern to the north, and Clarkport Pantry to the south. The tall windows and screens encased in black metal offer a tinted view into the strangeness within: worn linoleum flooring, strange artwork, faux wood paneling, coolers lit with purple light, lighting a little too bright considering the crowd, a few televisions (one with a stuffed pig perched upon it), a big screen showing all Cub games, and a plethora of beer signs. A combination of comfortable, high-backed wooden chairs (as well as a few of the uncomfortable backless variety) can be found along the length of the long wooden bar that bulges out in the middle, reminiscent of the bar at the Black Rock. Grab a seat at the bar, at one of the cocktail tables up front by the windows, or at one of the low rider tables by the two pool tables in back. You’ll also find a pair of real cork dartboards in the back, between a pair of restrooms that replaced the pinball and foosball machines.
Although the Nisei proclaims itself as the, “only straight bar in Wrigleyville,” sometimes it is hard to tell with the weird vibe going on in there. Regardless, the place attracts locals from a variety of ages, ethnicities, and financial solvencies due to cheap booze prices (read: this is not a yuppie bar). The Nisei does attract Cub fans, so expect the bar to be more crowded during home games – but not nearly to the extent of nearby Harry Caray’s Tavern, Sports Corner or Murphy’s Bleachers. Patrons also love the jukebox, which is like having your own mini-WXRT in the house, as well as the bartenders that make an effort for you to feel at home.
Photo courtesy of Randall Kooistra
The Nisei Lounge was named after the Nisei, who are US-born children of Japanese immigrants (i.e. second generation Japanese). During World War II, many of these American citizens were imprisoned in Japanese “internment” camps due to government paranoia. Many Japanese then moved to Chicago from their western bondage, numbering as high as 20,000 by the mid-1950s and second only to New York City, according to Alan Merridew’s Chicago Tribune Article, “Younger Ones Not Very Interested” (October 2, 1975), covering Emperor Hirohito’s visit to Chicago. The Nisei Lounge is a reminder that it wasn’t too long ago that Japanese people were viewed with scrutiny, and places like the Nisei were one of the few where Japanese Americans could congregate comfortably. The Nisei was originally located at Clark and Division, but moved to its current location about 30 years ago. In 1992, the place was purchased by Scott Martin (who also owns the Andersonville legend, Simon’s Tavern) along with a business partner. While it still attracts a few Japanese Americans, has a few Japanese covers on the jukebox, and stocks bottles of Asahi Super Dry (the best selling beer in Japan), the Nisei is becoming more of a Wrigleyville tavern with an interesting name.
For those in the know, young or old and of Japanese or any other ancestry, the Nisei remains one of the last neighborhood bars in the heart of madness. Few even know it exists, thus preserving its neighborhood atmosphere – no small task considering places like Johnny O’Hagan’s, John Barleycorn’s, Red Ivy, and the Irish Oak, which attract hordes of young, rowdy crowds. For local Cub fans, the Nisei is a great place to meet before the game or shoot some stick afterwards. While rough around the edges, the Nisei is a great place to relax and get loaded. My recommendation: take in a meal at Matsuya (a good sushi restaurant around the corner on Clark) and then head to the Nisei for some Asahi afterwards to complete your own “Night of Japan.” Kanpai!