It might be difficult to picture, but not all of Milwaukee Avenue in Wicker Park is stuffed with new bars and restaurants. The area immediately northwest of the Polish Triangle at Milwaukee/Ashland/Division can get downright sleepy at night, and that provides an opportunity for Neon Wilderness to grab thirsty customers — particular those hopping off the Division Street CTA Blue Line stop.
The bar, which gets its name from Nelson Algren’s 1947 anthology, officially opens Thursday night at 1270 N. Milwaukee Avenue. The insides are unrecognizable for those who’ve frequented the space’s previous tenants (The Exchange, Lava). A massive new bar stands on the westside of the space whereas the previous tenants stationed bars on the east and south sides.
Cocktail books from bartender/owner Brad Bolt’s personal collection stand behind the bar. No, there’s no Algren stuff. The bar’s name was meant to be strictly a tribute to the area and not the basis of the bar. Ownership figured they’d score some goodwill with locals. Bolt, who drinkers know from Bar DeVille — the popular Ukrainian Village bar that still needs a new home after closing last year — wants Neon Wilderness to find a happy medium between old-school shot and beer bars and upscale, trendier cocktail lounges. The bar boasts a large selection of American whisky, but it also has the ingredients, like fresh fruit juices, to make fancy drinks. It won’t have fancy ice cubes or glassware.
The bar’s menu features eight house cocktails, and Bolt said he’ll change it up about four times a year. The “Polish Broadway” is another nod to the area with Zubrowska vodka and syrup made from Vander Mill’s Totally Roasted cider. There’s no draft beer, but there are plenty of cans. There’s a shot and beer special. Bolt also notes it’ll have seven types of champagne. If customers want to go fancy, they can go after some pricey bubbly.
The transformed space features a photo booth that charges $5 (it accepts Apple Pay, too). The ceilings are reinforced with reclaimed wood. The bathrooms feature Wu-Tang Clan-inspired “men’s” and “women’s” signs on the door. Bolt painted them himself.
Neon Wilderness isn’t an official Heisler Hospitality bar, but the owners of Sportsman’s Club, Pub Royale, and Bad Hunter are collaborating with Bolt in the same way they supported Bar DeVille. The bar is not meant to evoke the shadowy dives that Algren wrote about until his death in 1981. It won’t have card hustlers, but it will have a DJ on the weekends to liven the room up with late ‘70s to mid-’90s pop. There’s also an emphasis on daily happy hour deals. There are no TVs.
“We just want to be the bar for everyone,” Bolt said. “Everyone should be comfortable drinking here.”
Tour the space below. Neon Wilderness open tonight.
Neon Wilderness, 1270 N. Milwaukee Avenue, open 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. Sunday through Friday; 5 p.m. to 3 a.m. on Saturday.