Earlier in June, Maifest, the annual German heritage festival in Lincoln Square featuring traditional food, beers and music, was canceled for the second year in a row. The street party drew crowds to the plaza, thirsty to enjoy an ice-cold lager while hanging out in the German-American center of Chicago.
Lincoln Square is a neighborhood at a crossroads, and the cancellation was a disappointment for the American cultural center DANK Haus, which is headquartered near the corner of Lawrence and Western. DANK Haus took every opportunity to preserve the cultural heritage of the neighborhood. Most recently, he saved the Chicago Brauhaus from the clutches of extinction by moving the restaurant bar, along with a few other memorabilia, inside its building.
Maifest is the organization’s main fundraiser, but instead of the usual May Queen pat and coronation, DANK Haus hosted an alternative event called Maifest fundraiser at the Haus on June 5th. The organizers have promised a catering service at Himmel’s, the German-Italian pillar on Lawrence Avenue, with mugs of beer, wine and music from Paloma, a longtime local German band. Previous festivals have featured foods like Thuringian bratwurst and sausages, leberkäse (German meatloaf), and bienenstich (almond cream cake).
While Maifest was not the only festival that was again postponed by the pandemic, its absence reflects a larger shift in the Lincoln Square neighborhood – once a largely German-American enclave that has over time seen several of its community pillars close or change hands, a trend that has accelerated in recent years.
These losses include Huettenbar, one of the last German taverns in the region. Founded in 1985, the bar has grown in popularity for its colorful murals, Old World allure, and wide selection of German beers and liquors. Owner Irma Frolich quietly shut it down in fall 2020. Space’s new tenant, Andrew Pillman, has plans for a new tavern: Lincoln Square Valve Room.
Although Pillman was not contacted for comment, in May he said Block the Chicago club that he aims to keep the aesthetic German neighbors associated with the space, and has indicated that he would like to bring in the local painter behind Huettenbar’s original artwork to create new murals. However, regulars at Huettenbar say Pillman plans to radically change the bar’s character. A municipal building permit granted in May for an interior renovation would seem to support this claim.
DANK Haus executive director Monica Jirak says she has discussed with Pillman the importance of German-American cultural relics like Huettenbar and hopes to collaborate to protect this part of the identity of the space. She put him in touch with Karl Raack, the local painter who made the original art for the bar. Jirak also wants the new bar to offer German-style beers from Chicago-based breweries like Dovetail. Pillman also owns Lakeview Taproom on Irving Park Road, where he focuses on local beers.
“Obviously, you will never replace the Huettenbar or the Chicago Brauhaus,” says Jirak. “But if you have institutions that can work in this [German] coin and doing their best to preserve it is a win-win.
Beyond the region’s German roots, another demographic is often overlooked: Lincoln Square was home to Chicago’s first Thai restaurant, the Thai Room, which opened in 1979. Other Thai restaurants followed, including Opart Thai House, which debuted in 1983. Mary Punmit’s parents opened the restaurant. It closed the location in 2018, moving its operations to West Town. There are currently 10 Thai restaurants in the area, including heavyweights like Rainbow Thai and Rosded, who was the only Thai grocer in the area for years.
“The Thai population was so small,” Punmit says. “But nearby was our little Thai town.”
One of Lincoln Square’s flagship remains Gene’s Sausage Shop, a tiered grocery store that has grown from its roots as a small sausage maker in Belmont Cragin. Rumors are that Amazon is coming soon build a store nearby, which could affect Gene’s business. Still, Jirak says she isn’t worried about the disappearance of German culture in Chicago. Instead, she’s encouraged to see Chicagoans take risks and take contemporary approaches like Funkenhausen, the German brewery influenced by South West Town, and Prost, the laid-back Bavarian pub that’s popular with locals. students of DePaul University in Lincoln Park.
Jirak believes a willingness to grow and meet the needs of the community are essential elements in keeping German-American history and culture alive in Chicago.
“I think it’s important to preserve the history and to tell the stories so that they are not forgotten,” she says. “But on the other hand, you have to keep evolving and transforming yourself to stay relevant.”
- Chicago Brauhaus, the German luminaire in Lincoln Square, will close in December [ECHI]
- How Chicago found an unorthodox way to save a classic bar [ECHI]
- Huettenbar’s new owner says the bar’s old German charm will remain when it opens as Lincoln Square Taproom in July [Block Club Chicago]