Chinatown's First Cocktail Bar Celebrates Lunar New Year with Cocktail Versions of Asian Food
January 18, 2023
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Lunar New Year has always been one of Lily Wang’s favorite holidays. She and her partner Joe Briglio are both bartenders, so in 2019 they decided to celebrate the Year of the Pig by hosting a pop-up bar at Moon Palace, a restaurant in Chinatown owned by Wang’s parents. “Something just clicked in my head that it would be fun to be able to celebrate a very special holiday and spend it with friends,” Wang says.
Four years later, the tradition of a festive Lunar New Year event continues at Nine Bar, their popular cocktail venture’s permanent home in a revamped Moon Palace, on Tuesday, January 24 starting at 7:00 pm in collaboration with the acclaimed Filipino restaurant and bakery Kasama. (It’s walk-in only.)
Food will be provided by Kasama’s Tim Flores and Genie Kwon, but Wang and Briglio’s cocktails will almost be a meal in their own right. “We’re taking full dishes and kind of turning them into our cocktail interpretations,” says Wang. That means a Tom Kha cocktail redolent with the herbs of the Thai coconut soup, or a Fried Sesame Ball drink that incorporates all the components—red bean paste, rice, sesame—of the classic Chinese dessert, among others.
“We always find pop-ups or one-off events really fun because we get to explore some different flavors and some cocktail styles that we don’t currently feature on our menu,” explains Briglio.
Having a set menu is still a relatively new feature for Nine Bar, which opened its brick-and-mortar home last summer. The pandemic forced Wang and Briglio out of work, so they—like so many other food industry workers—started looking for creative ways to occupy themselves and continue some sort of work in the industry. They came up with the name Nine Bar for the pop-ups they had been intermittently hosting, and eventually hatched a plan to move into Moon Palace, which Wang’s parents have owned since 1995.
Nine Bar is Chinatown’s first cocktail bar, and neither Wang nor her parents ever expected to see one in the neighborhood. But Wang and Briglio wanted to contribute to the vibrant dining culture of the area and provide people with a place to keep the night going beyond their meal. “So much of American culture is going to grab a drink before or after dinner, and it was so disappointing before to hear about how so many people would go to Chinatown, but then if they wanted to continue their night, they would have to leave the neighborhood,” Wang says.
To make room for Nine Bar, Wang and Briglio shrunk Moon Palace into a small takeout counter in front while transforming the dining room behind it into a modish bar that’s hidden away like a speakeasy. Each space has its own separate food, although some of Moon Palace’s sauces show up on the Chinese-American bar food of Nine Bar, like the chicken wings and mapo sauce-drenched fries. The cocktails all feature some Asian influence, including flavors such as sichuan peppercorn and ube, and liquors like the Chinese baijiu and Japanese whisky.
Wang’s mom still works the counter of what is now known as Moon Palace Express, and her dad can still be found in the kitchen, but “they’re not there every day, every second, like they used to,” says Wang. The eventual goal is for them to retire, but for now they continue to be at the restaurant most of the time to oversee the new operation and make sure things go well.
“Their whole life has been their restaurant,” says Wang. “I’m sure they were very apprehensive in the beginning, but to see that it’s been popular and successful, I think it surpassed their expectations.”
Given her parents’ constant presence at the restaurant, Wang spent much of her childhood at Moon Palace, even though she grew up in Skokie. Now she’s back in the same space as a proprietor, celebrating her favorite holiday with a special event that hearkens back to the start of her own business. It seems like an auspicious start to the Year of the Rabbit.