Earlier in June, Maifest, the annual German heritage festival in Lincoln Square featuring traditional foods, beers, and music, was canceled for the second year in a row. The street fest brought crowds to the Square, thirsty to enjoy a frosty lager while hanging out in Chicago’s German-American hub.
Lincoln Square is a neighborhood at a crossroads, and the cancellation came as a disappointment to DANK Haus German American Cultural Center, which is headquartered near the corner of Lawrence and Western. DANK Haus has taken advantage of every opportunity to preserve the neighborhood’s cultural heritage. Most recently, it saved the Chicago Brauhaus from the clutches of extinction by moving the restaurant’s bar, plus a few other mementos, inside its building.
Maifest is the organization’s major fundraiser, but in lieu of the usual keg-tapping and crowning of the May Queen, DANK Haus held an alternative event called Maifest Fundraiser at the Haus on June 5. Organizers promised catering from Himmel’s, the German-Italian stalwart on Lawrence Avenue, along with steins of beer, wine, and music from Paloma, a long-running local German music group. Previous festivals have featured foods like bratwurst and Thüringer sausages, leberkäse (German meat loaf), and bienenstich (almond custard cake).
While Maifest wasn’t the only festival that’s again been postponed by the pandemic, its absence reflects a larger shift in the Lincoln Square neighborhood — once a largely German-American enclave that over time has seen many of its community pillars close or change hands, a trend that’s accelerated in recent years.
These losses include Huettenbar, one of the area’s last-remaining German taverns. Founded in 1985, the bar gained a following for its colorful murals, Old World allure, and wide selection of German beers and liquors. Owner Irma Frolich quietly closed it in fall 2020. The space’s new tenant, Andrew Pillman, has plans for a new tavern: Lincoln Square Taproom.
While Pillman wasn’t reached for comment, back in May, he told Block Club Chicago that he aims to maintain the German aesthetic neighbors associate with the space, and indicated that he’d like to bring in the local painter behind Huettenbar’s original artwork to create new murals. However, Huettenbar regulars say Pillman is planning to drastically change the bar’s character. A city building permit granted in May for an interior renovation would seem to back that claim.
DANK Haus executive director Monica Jirak says she’s discussed with Pillman the importance of German-American cultural relics like Huettenbar and hopes to collaborate on protecting that piece of the space’s identity. She connected him with Karl Raack, the local painter who did the original art for the bar. Jirak also wants the new bar to feature German-style beers from Chicago-based breweries like Dovetail. Pillman also owns Lakeview Taproom on Irving Park Road, where he focuses on local brews.
“Obviously you’re never going to replace the Huettenbar or Chicago Brauhaus,” Jirak says. “But if you have institutions that can work in that [German] piece and do their best at preserving it, that’s a win-win.”
Beyond the area’s German roots, another demographic is often glossed over: Lincoln Square was home to Chicago’s first Thai restaurant, the Thai Room, which opened in 1979. Other Thai restaurants followed, including Opart Thai House, which debuted in 1983. Mary Punmit’s parents opened the restaurant. She closed the location in 2018, moving her operations to West Town. Currently there are 10 Thai restaurants in the area, including heavy-hitters like Rainbow Thai and Rosded, which was the area’s only Thai grocer for years.
“The Thai population was so small,” Punmit says. “But within this proximity, this was our little Thai town.”
One of Lincoln Square’s flagships remains Gene’s Sausage Shop, a multilevel grocer that’s grown from its roots as a small wiener-maker in Belmont Cragin. Rumors are that Amazon will soon build a store nearby, which could affect Gene’s business. Still, Jirak says she isn’t worried about German culture disappearing in Chicago. Instead, she’s heartened to see Chicagoans taking risks and embracing contemporary approaches like that of Funkenhausen, the Southern-influenced German beer hall in West Town, and Prost, the casual Bavarian pub that’s popular with students at nearby DePaul University in Lincoln Park.
Jirak believes that a willingness to grow and respond to the community’s wants are essential components for keeping German-American history and culture alive in Chicago.
“I think it’s important to preserve history and tell the stories so they’re not forgotten,” she says. “But on the flip side, you have to continue to evolve and transform so you can remain relevant.”