When someone says they grew up behind a bar, they’re typically referring to tender years spent cleaning glasses or sweeping up at a parent’s pub. But Sonya Mlodzek, the owner of J9 Wine Bar at 1961 N. Halsted in Lincoln Park, in fact, grew up behind the building in a coach house on the property that her stepfather purchased in 1975.
Mlodzek says she’s watched the area change around her at an ever-increasing clip. She founded J9, named for her late sister Jeanine, in 2016. By 2019, the bar was so busy that her team was regularly turning away weekend patrons. Tied through memory and legacy to the location — and blissfully unaware of the incoming COVID-19 pandemic — she bought the century-old building next door and embarked on a major expansion that would more than double her bar’s 50-seat capacity.
Despite the now-familiar tumult of the early pandemic, Mlodzek rolled with the numerous public health and logistical punches to unveil an airy new wine haven in September 2021. The reopening appropriately coincided with its namesake’s birthday. “Even from the grave, [Jeanine] has to be the big sister and control things,” Mlodzek says.
Housed inside a 100-year-old building that served as an auto shop in the late 1940s, J9’s expansion comes with a dramatic reveal: Patrons walk through the bar’s cozy, narrow space and encounter the bright and expansive addition with striking arched bow truss ceilings and retractable wall-size windows along the front that draw on familiar local architecture.
“Some of the old Chicago apartment buildings have that three-season sun porch area, that’s the inspiration,” Mlodzek says. That home-away-from-home approach extends to the seating (there’s room for 118 in total), composed of clusters of cushy armchairs, modern lounge perches, and low couches throughout the room. Mlodzek terms them “vignettes.”
The shifts at J9 aren’t solely aesthetic. Wine and spirits director Johnna Battaglia says she’s noticed a spike in curious and even adventurous wine drinkers. She has responded in kind, shaking up the wine lists at a much more rapid pace than prior to the pandemic. “People come here to try new things,” Battaglia says. “They’re definitely noticing and enjoying it — we’re going through more wine in general, both interesting varietals plus the things that people are used to.”
Mlodzek, who splits her time between Chicago and Napa, California, agrees. Before 2020, she says that Chicago’s wine scene had a certain stuffiness and conventionality. For operators, there was some comfort in that, but the status quo could also result in unchallenging wine lists that didn’t spark interest from new customers. Now, she says it’s commonplace for regulars and novices to sidle up to the bar brimming with questions about new and notable pours.
In the midst of all this newness, Mlodzek and Battaglia have also identified a sea change in the wine world at large: the growing prominence of women in leadership positions. Looking back, Battaglia recalls her experience a decade ago working at a different Chicago wine bar. “There was not one female manager in the entire group except for event sales,” she says. “There are female managers there now, but 10 years ago, not one. That’s a huge change in a matter of 10 years.”
See more of the expanded J9 in the photographs below.