CHINATOWN — When Lily Wang and Joe Briglio began dating about eight years ago, the couple took a trip to Vancouver and found themselves at a bustling cocktail bar in the city’s Chinatown.
It was diverse, the food was good and the spot was busy, Wang said.
“We were kind of like, ‘Oh, man, why don’t they have something like this in Chinatown?’” Wang said.
After that trip, the couple began daydreaming about opening their own bar, Wang said. Nearly a decade later, their idea has come to fruition in Nine Bar, 216 W. Cermak Road, the first cocktail bar in Chinatown, the two said. Nine Bar opened in June.
Though Nine Bar marks a Chinatown first, the spot is rooted in neighborhood history: The Asian-inspired cocktail bar is tucked behind Moon Palace, a Chinatown staple for nearly 50 years. Wang’s parents bought the restaurant in 1995 and began considering retirement when the COVID-19 pandemic interrupted business, she said.
As Wang and Briglio spent more time with her parents through the pandemic, they formed an idea for a dual-concept restaurant and bar, she said. The couple wanted to reshape Chinatown nightlife while still honoring the original Moon Palace, Briglio said.
“We didn’t want to suddenly erase something that had been here for so long that it’s such an integral part of the neighborhood,” Briglio said.
Wang and Briglio revamped the restaurant’s dining room as a sleek bar dishing up fusion cocktails and bar snacks, while rebranding the front end as Moon Palace Express: a takeout-counter version of the original restaurant. To keep the two businesses separate, the Moon Palace menu is not available at Nine Bar and vice versa, Briglio said.
The couple also created a distinction by tucking the bar entrance behind a nondescript door to emulate a speakeasy.
Dank Korenevsky, a bartender and Wang’s close friend since high school, said Nine Bar captures the “allure” of the speakeasy concept better than other Chicago spots he’s worked at and frequented.
“There’s a lot of places that call themselves a speakeasy, but really they’re just a dark bar,” Korenevsky said. “This one, I will be outside getting some air and I’ll see somebody walking by and actually be confused that they got to the right place or not because they’re seeing a restaurant when they’re looking for a bar.”
Korenevsky has been involved with the launch, helping out as a bartender, DJ and photographer. After meeting Wang during freshman orientation of high school, Korenevsky also has become close with Wang’s family, he said.
It’s been meaningful to see their reactions to the Moon Palace transformation, Korenevsky said.
“I see them just kind of walking in and looking at how full it is or looking around and seeing some of the regulars,” Korenevsky said. “My perception is that they’re pretty proud of what’s happened and excited.”
Local entrepreneur Lucy Angel Camarena, who is also a friend of Wang’s, said Nine Bar has become a go-to spot for her when she’s entertaining out-of-town friends. She’s spent more late nights in Chinatown since its opening, Camarena said.
As a small business owner in Little Village, Camarena said she admires how Wang has thrived as a second-generation restaurant owner. To her, Wang and Briglio signify the next wave of bars and restaurants across the city, bringing a fresh take to a neighborhood fixture, Camarena said.
“I love that you can get these two experiences when you’re walking in there,” Camarena said. “Whether you want to just order the thing that you’ve been ordering the last 14 years or … you can experience something still in the same category but just a little bit different.”
Though Nine Bar has been a neighborhood trailblazer, the couple ultimately see themselves as one of the options within the “larger puzzle,” Briglio said.
“Chinatown is this huge, vibrant neighborhood,” Briglio said. “It makes us really happy when we hear that someone is coming by and then having dinner elsewhere and then going to karaoke. … It’s nice to fit into that ecosystem.”
Wang said she hopes to shift perceptions of Chinatown nightlife by allowing people to have a full night out in the neighborhood. It’s been rewarding to see decades-long residents swing by the new space, she said.
“There was this woman that was in … and she said she had grown up in the neighborhood and never in her life did she think she’d be able to have what she considered a real cocktail in this neighborhood,” Wang said. “That’s a lot of the response from people — that they maybe have been coming to Chinatown for years, decades and just kind of never really envisioned this experience.”
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