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Explore Wicker Park’s New Tavern That Straddles the Line Between Old and New Schools

Neon Wilderness’ name was inspired by Nelson Algren

Neon Wilderness opens tonight.
Barry Brecheisen
Ashok Selvam is the editor of Eater Chicago and a native Chicagoan armed with more than two decades of award-winning journalism. Now covering the world of restaurants and food, his nut graphs are super nutty.

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.

The bar’s on the other side of the room, now.
Neon Shop Fishtail supplied neon art like this.
The ceiling is made from reclaimed wood.
The red glow from the light at the back sets the tone.
The photo booth and hallway leading to the bathroom.
No cash? This booth accepts Apple Pay.
No drafts, but there’s plenty of cheap beer.
American whisky dominates the bar.
Do It For Your Mamma
Polish Broadway
If only Piece Pizza would bring its Golden Arm beer; then customers could have a real Algren party.
Owner Brad Bolt said that customers at Bar DeVille would often want bubbles and wine, but they didn’t stock enough. Neon Wilderness does.

Neon Wilderness

1270 North Milwaukee Avenue, , IL 60622 Visit Website