Editor’s Note: it is with great sorrow that I report to you, dear reader, that one of my favorite Chicago bars – Ten 56 – has closed, just like it’s eclectic neighbor to the south, Lava Lounge. According to a posting on Planet 99, “After 20 years in business, this bar was closed after a bartender served an undercover minor at 4pm in the afternoon. – wm, 07/02/2005.” The Ten 56 space has reverted back to a modern incarnation of the bar that once preceded it, Sweet Alice.
Ten 56 is a seriously funky lounge where questionable intentions are awash in red glow. Few places in the city are as cool as this unconventional martini bar. Some people blame places like this for ruining the somehow appealing mix of poverty and grittiness in the Ukrainian Village. However, others like me see Ten 56 as enhancing the character of the neighborhood by adding another dimension to it. Ten 56’s dark swankiness is the perfect addition to the neighborhood’s legendary drinking scene highlighted by the Empty Bottle, Inner Town Pub, Cleo’s, Bettie’s Blue Star Lounge, Tuman’s Alcohol Abuse Center, and the Rainbo Club.
In 1997, Ten 56 opened at the corner of Thomas and Damen. While rather non-descript in the daytime with its black and green facade at the base of a three-story brownstone, Ten 56 attracts those seeking a drink by simply advertising a 1940s-era “Martini Guy” in a suit holding a cocktail. Named after its address on Damen, many heading there for the first time may not even realize the bar is called “Ten 56” as that can only be seen subtly spelled out in small colorful circles on the window. As you step up, the door padded entirely in buttoned red vinyl will give you the sense that you’re in for something a little different.
As you enter the bar, you’ll encounter a smallish, hard-wood floored expanse. A black vinyl-padded bar with white several votive candles scattered upon its stone surface runs along the north wall, which is also padded in red vinyl. This, combined with the red vinyl, high-backed bar chairs and red beveled glass complimented by a solitary red light bulb reflected in the large mirror behind the bar, gives the entire room a lascivious red glow. For all its swankiness, a Golden Tee machine stands incongruously at the end of the bar in front of the plate glass windows dressed in leopard print that overlook Damen. That didn’t stop me from having a round!
While they do not serve food, here at the bar one can enjoy one of eight beers on tap (served with pretzel rods) or the bar’s signature 10-ounce green apple martini, served in an equally large, chilled martini glass, as you peruse the cigar list. Martinis of the chocolate variety and Cosmopolitans served with blackberry liquor are also available, as is freshly baked bread sold for $4.50 a loaf by a witch-like women from the area that appears at night from time to time. An iron, medieval-like chandelier with electronically-lit orange light bulbs hangs from a black-tiled ceiling, and illuminates wooden shelving with books and a mounted marlin on the wood-paneled south wall and the smattering of cocktail tables below. For entertainment, spend some time studying the nude sculptures, take in a silent old porno, Japanimation or a kung fu flick on one of the two televisions, or have a crack on the red-felted pool table that matches the groovy red wallpaper. Otherwise, get to know those around you while seated at the black banquette that runs along the north wall just beyond the bar, in the large, red-vinyl booth at the west end of the room or at the lone cocktail table overlooking the billiards action, below the disco ball. When you’re called by Mother Nature calls or need to call someone yourself, head to the nice porcelain bathrooms in the back that each have a phone. There is also a phone near the front door in the old-fashioned wooden phone booth, with a giant hand holding a lighted cigarette above it.
All that can be said about the crowd is that they wear lots of black and some could be frightening if seen in daytime. However, since the conversion from its previous existence as Sweet Alice, which lured slacker local artsy-types with the promise of secondhand furniture and hip cocktails, more patrons have emerged from condos in the area and other parts of the city. This has changed the dynamic of the bar somewhat from its grungy beginnings but the slight air of perversion and the willingness to get drunk on a school night remains. There is usually a good crowd anytime during the week, as regulars come by for the drink specials, occasional free-style rap and excellent nightly DJ sessions that rival those at the Liar’s Club. Ten 56 gets very crowded on the weekends, which considering its size could be unpleasant, so may be better as your starter bar or for a night cap at the end of the evening (or as a prelude to late-night).
Instead of corrupting the vibe in the Ukrainian Village, Ten 56 enriches it as the neighborhood evolves from a crime center into a very trendy area. And let’s not forget that Ten 56 used to be a speakeasy in the 1930s and a neighborhood tavern for local immigrants for a long time before the artists ever started appearing on the scene in the 1990s. The only constant is change, so head over to the Black Beetle or California Clipper in Humboldt Park if you don’t mind getting mugged on your way to the bar. My recommendation: start out a Thursday night at the Inner Town Pub, just down the street on Thomas, take in a show over at the Empty Bottle on Western, and wrap it up with cocktails at Ten 56. “Blue Mondays” are also good with $3 pints of Blue Moon and Jagermeister shots and free pool. Cheers.
“The space is small and dark much like the imaginations of the clientele”– Shecky’s Bar, Club & Lounge Guide 2002