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Logan Square, Humboldt Park, Avondale

Polish Dive Bar Podlasie Club Was Headed Toward Closure. Now, It’s A Nightlife Hot Spot

Everything changed when young creatives launched monthly dance parties at the Avondale bar last year. “We had nobody, we closed at 8-9 p.m. Then all of a sudden, we had 120 people ’til 3 in the morning."

A dance party at Podlasie Club in Avondale.
Courtesy of Aaron Rolle
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AVONDALE — A red-and-white sign for Podlasie Club has hung over Avondale’s Central Park Avenue for decades, promising entertainment.

Podlasie Club, 2918 N. Central Park Ave., was one of the most popular Polish night clubs in the area in the ’80s and ’90s, packed with working-class Poles dancing the night away to live music. But in recent years, the club quieted and emptied as the neighborhood gentrified.

Then something unexpected happened: Podlasie’s owners teamed up with a group of young creatives to hold dance parties last summer. Podlasie Club again became one of the hottest dance clubs in Chicago, with 20- and 30-somethings lined up down the block to dance in the old Polish bar. The club was alive, but for a younger generation.

“We had nobody, we closed at 8-9 p.m. Then all of a sudden, we had 120 people ’til 3 in the morning. It was hard for me to comprehend that that actually can happen,” said co-owner Violetta Konopka, who runs the club with her brother, Vitek Pluta.

Now, instead of closing the bar, the owners are investing in its future as a nightlife hot spot. The bar’s first major renovation in decades kicked off last month and is expected to last through the spring.

Credit: Mina Bloom/Block Club Chicago
The Podlasie Club sign.

From ‘Extremely Dead’ To The Hottest Spot In Town

Konopka and Pluta’s mother, Danuta Pluta, opened Podlasie Club in 1986 after emigrating from Poland.

Back then, the bar had the feel of a Polish wedding, with disco lights and tables covered in pink tablecloths near the dance floor, the owners said. Dolled-up couples, including “ladies wearing their best dresses and full makeup,” would fill the club each weekend to see Polka bands and other acts catering to the Polish community, or to grab drinks, Vitek Pluta said.

“These were hard-working people who worked all week and then on that Saturday, they would go out and have a really great time,” he said.

Business dwindled as more Poles left the neighborhood for the suburbs, decimating the customer base. The once-vibrant dance club turned into an empty dive bar.

The family stopped hosting live shows around five years ago to focus on running the bar, the owners said. Konopka said they considered shutting it all down around that time, but they held on to keep alive their mother’s legacy.

“When my mom came from Poland in the ’80s, she was able to purchase this place four years after she came to the U.S. … That’s why we want to keep it. She worked hard for it. Why not keep it in the family?” Konopka said.

Credit: Mina Bloom/Block Club Chicago
Violetta Konopka and Vitek Pluta, the owners of Podlasie Club in Avondale.

The revival started when Justine Tobiasz decided to celebrate her birthday at the Avondale bar in January 2020, when the hangout was quiet and empty. Tobiasz, a 34-year-old media archivist and visual artist, had hung out at Podlasie a couple times and wanted her friends to experience its charm.

Konopka said she remembers getting a phone call from Tobiasz on a sleepy Friday evening.

Tobiasz “asked if we were open, how late we’d be open. And I said, ‘Well, I’m not sure, I only have two customers.’ And she said, ‘Is it possible if you can stay open? Because it’s my birthday today and I want to come in with some of my friends,'” Konopka said.

Tobiasz and 20 of her friends — the most patrons Podlasie Club had seen in a long time — closed down the bar that night, feeling like they had discovered a secret gem. In their excitement, they asked Konopka about reviving the old dance floor in the back. It hadn’t been used in recent years.

“It had this house party feeling. It felt very comfortable,” Tobiasz said.

Tobiasz and her friends stayed in touch with Konopka and asked if they could throw a dance party at the bar. Over time, they came up with the idea of throwing a series of monthly events, called the Podlasie Pleasure Club.

Konopka got on board, hoping it could help bring the “extremely dead” business back to life. But just as the collaboration was coming together, the pandemic forced Podlasie Club to close. Suddenly, it wasn’t clear the bar would survive, let alone hold a dance party.

The owners lucked out because their family owns the building, which meant they didn’t have a mortgage, but they still struggled to keep the lights on and pay their bartender during the prolonged shutdown, they said.

Things stayed quiet for about a year as the owners fought to save the family business.

“The idea that we were even going to throw a successful party was a major what if,” said Ali Najdi, one of the founders of the event series. “I was optimistic, but I wasn’t expecting Pleasure Club to blow up the way it did — and I don’t think anyone was.”

This July, the Podlasie Pleasure Club crew finally threw its first dance party, with the group’s members creating flyers, sprucing up the space and spreading the word. It was an overwhelming success. A DJ set by Najdi and Leja Hazer drew about 120 people, double what the owners expected. It was so packed that some party-goers had to jump behind the bar to help the owners serve drinks, the owners said.

“It was a running joke between all of us that no one’s going to come. It’s just going to be the five of us. But that’s not what happened,” Tobiasz said. “It hit at the moment where people felt safe enough to go out again. … It was a full house, there was a line down the block, which was just so insane to all of us.”

Credit: Courtesy of Aaron Rolle
A dance party at Podlasie Club in Avondale.

That party put Podlasie back on the map. Other DJs and party planners approached Konopka about getting on the club’s calendar, even though it didn’t have a social media presence or a website. Soon, Podlasie Club was booked every weekend, with hundreds of people flowing in and out of the bar like in the ’80s and ’90s — only this time, it was a younger crowd.

As the Podlasie Pleasure Club crew continued throwing parties, organizers helped the owners navigate the sudden success. The party planners wanted the revival to be a collaboration, not a takeover, they said.

While they were drawn to the night club for its “unintentionally cool” vibe, they wanted to help bring back a family business with deep roots in the community.

“For me, it was making sure we were respecting the place,” Tobiasz said. “It was not just a place that [was] empty and forgotten. There’s definitely a community there. It has a long tradition and history.”

Credit: Courtesy of Sophia Savin

After several months of parties, Podlasie Club closed again in December during another surge of COVID-19 cases. The owners used the shutdown as an opportunity to renovate the club, which is inside a 100-year-old building that hadn’t seen any upgrades since their mother bought it in the mid-’80s.

The renovation is a gut job: Podlasie will have new walls, ceilings and bathrooms and a bigger dance floor when the project is complete. But the owners are also keeping many of the club’s original details, like the old bar, mirrors and Polish beer signs.

It’s important the bar continues to have a strong Polish identity when it reopens, hopefully in May, they said.

“Of course the walls are going to be different, of course the ceilings are going to be different. You have to go with the right way of construction and remodeling. But the little pieces, the bar — that’s not going to really change that much. This is what made the place alive,” Vitek Pluta said.

‘It Was The Best Thing That’s Happened’

Not only is Podlasie Club staying open, it’s filling a void in Chicago’s nightlife scene.

After popular dive bar Danny’s closed in 2020, there aren’t many Northwest Side bars holding regular dance parties for a younger crowd, said Najdi, a fixture of the local music scene who most recently worked for record label Numero Group.

Still, Podlasie Club isn’t “Danny’s 2.0,” Najdi said; he sees it as a cross between Danny’s and Smart Bar. Either way, “there’s definitely a need for this space in Chicago,” he said.

“I have a lot of gratitude for Vitek and Violetta, for them being so open and letting a bunch of kids come in and be creative and experiment and have fun outside of the bureaucracy of being a dancer or a DJ in Chicago and the limitations that come with that,” Najdi said.

The gratitude is mutual. The owners said their collaborators and patrons have been nothing but kind and supportive during this transformation, and they plan to keep the dance parties going.

“I love these kids. I call them my kids,” Konopka said.

Having mostly served older Polish people before the revamp, Konopka said she wasn’t sure about turning Podlasie into a hip dance club.

“I was skeptical because we never deal with younger crowds. It was always the older Polish people. We didn’t know what could happen,” she said. “But it was the best thing that’s happened.”

Credit: Courtesy of Aaron Rolle

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