If you want to come to Wrigley Field, you have to pass through Wrigleyville.
Temperance advocates might choose to avert their eyes. Some South Side critics of the Wrigley Field experience call the place the world's largest beer garden (though folks in Munich might beg to differ). Wrigleyville is one of Chicago's wettest neighborhoods, with dozens of bars clustered around the ballpark.
And with attendance up at the park, the local watering holes are busier than ever.
Back in the day, when the area was just "East Lakeview," the boozing scene around Wrigley focused on the four corners adjacent to the park: Ray's Bleachers, now Murphy's, at Sheffield and Waveland; Sports Corner at Sheffield and Addison; Cubby Bear (and Sluggers) at Addison and Clark; and Bernie's at Clark and Waveland.
But as the Cubs became pretty good in the 1980s, and the neighborhood gentrified, more fans meant more bars. Dozens of joints fill the storefronts, and Clark Street is a Chicago Mardi Gras 81 days a year (and once the team opens its new plaza on Clark, only God and the Illinois Liquor Control Commission know how big the party will be).
The neighborhood is a first-apartment-out-of-college destination, so the demographics skew young, loud and looking for love.
But fragments of the old neighborhood, as historic as the ballpark itself, still survive. So if you want a beverage before or after the game, and want to have your eardrums remain mostly intact, I'd recommend Nisei Lounge on North Sheffield, two blocks south of the park. It boasts of being Wrigleyville's oldest baseball bar and is definitely a historic survivor of Chicago's ethnic bar culture.
Back in the proverbial day, Chicago's ethnic immigrants clustered into particular neighborhoods. After World War II, thousands of Japanese-Americans who'd been interned during the war moved to Chicago, looking for work and community.
And someplace after work to have a drink and socialize with people who shared their worldview, their experience, their background.
Many of these nisei -- pronounced "knee-say," the Japanese word for the generation of Japanese-American immigrants first born in the States, the children of immigrants from Japan, issei -- settled in Lakeview, and the Nisei Lounge was their hangout starting in 1951.
Now it's a baseball bar somewhat by accident, because it's a five-minute stroll from Wrigley. The Red Line rumbles past just outside its back door, and the current owners have left it pretty much as it always was: an unpretentious and relaxed joint that older generations would recognize. The low brick building was constructed in 1914, the same year as Wrigley.
I met up with Pat Odon, whose official title is "Director of Beer and Baseball Operations," and Liz Garibay, a historian who gives public tours focusing on Chicago's bar and brewing history.
Garibay shares my aversion to the main scene on Clark Street, a strip of straight-from-central-casting meat markets. "The only bar on Clark Street I'll go to is G-Man," Garibay says. "Avoid the bro-bars and go to Nisei or Sheffield's," places she says she values because they're unpretentious, full of locals and have great beer lists.
These bars, perhaps especially Nisei, also exhibit the sense of continuity and history that makes bars valuable aspects of an urban community, not just someplace to celebrate a victory or drown your sorrows after a loss.
Odon admits that everything in the bar business is a trade-off. Unlike most neighboring bars, including two next door, Nisei lacks a kitchen. "We'd make more money if we had food, but then it's not the bar your dad and granddad went to if you can get wings and a chicken sandwich." But it's worth it: "People don't want white tablecloths," he says, "but they want history, and that's what we have."
The bar has made other trade-offs, keeping things cheap. "We announced that we would only raise prices after a season where the Cubs have a winning record," Odon tells me, and I did some math. His people bought the joint in 2010, and did not raise prices, thanks to Theo Epstein's "rebuilding" plan, in 2010, '11, '12, '13 or '14.
Talk about taking one for the home team.
After last season, they finally raised a few prices, but a 16 oz. Old Style tallboy remains $4. "Value!" Odon says. He also admits to going slightly upscale in terms of beer selection, now serving 71 beers instead of 12. "If young people want different beers, we can make that happen."
But a classic Chicago Old Style sign still hangs over the door.
Nisei connects their promotions to Cubs baseball in a detailed way. A sign by the dart boards congratulates Chicago Tribune baseball writer Paul Sullivan and Cubs radio play-by-play man Pat Hughes on recent awards.
We were talking the other night, and as we chatted, the White Sox beat the Twins, and some patrons at the bar cheered.
Sox fans? I asked.
"Oh, we always have Sox fans in here," Odon replied. "They spend money on alcohol and work nights." The bar plans to put on a "McCuddy's" promotion for the Cubs-Sox series in late July. McCuddy's was the ultimate White Sox bar, located across from the original Comiskey Park on 35th Street. Babe Ruth went there for beers and hot dogs between innings of Yankees games.
The politicians who demolished old Comiskey promised that the bar would be rebuilt, but it never was. (Imagine that: Illinois politicians lying!) Odon, a collector of historic bar and baseball stuff, plans to put up a picture of longtime owner "Ma" McCuddy, as well as old Sox paraphernalia, to welcome fans of the Cubs' foes.
Nisei has more in common with the much-missed McCuddy's than with most of its Wrigleyville neighbors. Says Odon: "An old baseball bar is an old baseball bar."
So, regarding the cliché that Cubs and Sox fans are mortal enemies?
"Everyone's welcome," Odon says. So come on down.