In Chicago, Hanukkah Now Has Its Own Pop-Up Bar Experience

Dec 22, 2019

As swaths of red and green trim Chicago neighborhoods this holiday season, an unexpected pop of blue is lighting up the Wrigleyville neighborhood. And it's got nothing to do with the Cubs.

It's actually the 10,000-plus lights springing from 8 Crazy Nights — what appears to be the city's first Hanukkah-themed pop-up bar.

Kyle Bagley and Sam Stone, co-owners of the Graystone Tavern, decided to dress up the sports bar for the month of December. Neither owner is Jewish, but Bagley says they saw a void in the crowded pop-up scene. On top of that, they wanted to stand out.

The Graystone Tavern, in Chicago's Wrigleyville, opened the city's first and only Hanukkah-themed pop-up bar. There are plenty of Christmas-themed pop-ups every year, and the owners wanted to do something a little different.
Nolis Anderson for NPR

"We felt that there was a significant percentage of the population that was underserved with all the Christmas pop-ups that were going on," Bagley says. "So, it killed two birds with one stone if you will ... It was us being different, and doing something cool for the Jewish community."

They did some research into the holiday and Jewish culture — which might be most evident in their menu offerings. There's matzo ball soup, latkes and challah grilled cheese. Boozy jelly donuts give patrons the privilege of injecting their own jelly via syringe, quickly sell out.

You won't find bacon on the menu, Bagley says, but their kitchen isn't totally kosher. Yet, customers are welcome to bring in their own kosher food.

The bartenders are also stepping up their mixology for the occasion. Two of their most popular cocktails are the "Mensch Mule" — a strawberry twist on the ginger-vodka classic — and, on the sweeter side, "Mazel Tov" mixes gin with a blueberry and rosemary simple syrup.

Decking one wall, ugly Hanukkah sweaters feature cheeky sayings that draw on Jewish culture, (see "Challah at ya girl").

"When you're running a bar, you've got to find creative ways to get people in when the Cubs aren't in town," says Ryan McGovern, who calls himself a regular at the Graystone Tavern.

He was initially skeptical when heard about the plans Bagley and Stone had for a pop-up.

"When I was asking them what their pop-up was gonna be, and they told me they were gonna do a Hanukkuh pop-up, I was like ... that's risky," he says. "It seemed outside the box."

As a Catholic, McGovern is part of Chicago's largest single religious denomination — at least 10 times the size of the city's Jewish population.

Hanukkah and holiday-inspired messages at The Graystone Tavern, in Chicago's Wrigleyville.
Nolis Anderson for NPR

"But it was something that there obviously was a need for," he says. "This place has been packed every day."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And finally today, tonight marks the start of Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights. Millions of people around the world will celebrate this holiday commemorating the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem with presents and jelly doughnuts and potato latkes. But if you've had enough latkes and played enough dreidel and you happen to be in Chicago, you could try something new - the city's first Hanukkah-themed pop-up bar. It's called 8 Crazy Nights, and it features theme-appropriate drinks, food and wall decor. It opened earlier this month at the Graystone Tavern and runs through December 31. And from what we've heard from customers, it's a hit, even with regulars like Ryan McGovern (ph).

RYAN MCGOVERN: When I was asking them what their pop-up was going to be, they told me they were going to a Hanukkah pop-up, I was like, that's risky. And this place has been packed every day since then.

MARTIN: We wanted to get in on the fun, so we called co-owner Kyle Bagley to tell us more. Kyle Bagley, welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

KYLE BAGLEY: It's my pleasure, Michel. How you doing today?

MARTIN: Oh, good. So if it's OK that I mention this, I understand that neither you, nor the co-owner are Jewish. So how did you come up with this idea?

BAGLEY: Well, we wanted to do something different. We felt that there was a significant percentage of the population that was underserved with all the Christmas pop-ups that were going on. And so it killed two birds with one stone, if you will.

MARTIN: OK. What was the other bird?

BAGLEY: Well, it was us being different and doing something cool for the Jewish community.

MARTIN: So tell us a little bit about the menu. I see you have some traditional offerings like the matzo ball soup and the latkes.

BAGLEY: We do.

MARTIN: But there's some other things that you've added, some twists.

BAGLEY: The coolest thing we do is the challah grilled cheese with a tomato soup. It's really, really good. We also do boozy jelly doughnuts which are - we can't make them fast enough.

MARTIN: Oh, really?

BAGLEY: Yeah.

MARTIN: OK. OK. Now, I'm not trying to put you on the spot here, but did you kosher your kitchen?

BAGLEY: We did not.

MARTIN: You did not. So this is not kosher offerings, but it's kind of...

BAGLEY: No. No kosher offerings. But we do offer, if people need kosher, we invite them to bring in their own offerings.

MARTIN: Oh, OK. Well, that seems nice.

BAGLEY: Yeah.

MARTIN: But so no bacon. There's no bacon. There's nothing that shouldn't be there.

BAGLEY: Well, We did enough research where we wouldn't put bacon in any of the dishes (laughter).

MARTIN: OK. And I guess that the decor is some Hanukkah-themed sweaters and some fun things like that.

BAGLEY: Yeah, man. We have dreidels all over. We have a wall of Hanukkah. I guess you'd consider them ugly Hanukkah sweaters. We have well over 10,000 lights adorning the place, the walls. So we went all-out. It is gaudy, but I think lovely gaudy.

MARTIN: I have to say the Hanukkah-themed sweaters don't seem that easy to come by. I mean...

BAGLEY: They were not.

MARTIN: ...Seems kind of unfair, but they're not that easy to come by.

BAGLEY: They were not. My partner, Sam (ph), he did a lot of research and did a lot of shopping online. And it seems to be one of the most popular aspects of the bar. And people are asking, you know, what are we doing after the new year, if they could come and get some of those.

MARTIN: So what's been the response?

BAGLEY: It's been really, really amazing. It's really been overwhelming. People are really grateful that somebody thought about doing this. And we're grateful for the support.

MARTIN: I'm guessing - maybe I'm just sort of hypothesizing this. But I'm guessing that a lot of the people who are coming aren't all Jewish.

BAGLEY: That's true. I mean, we're not taking a tally. But there's plenty of non-Jewish people that are coming in just because it is so unique. You know, you're getting inundated with the Christmas pop-ups, and then there's us. We're the only one that is all blue and white.

MARTIN: It seems funny that nobody thought of it before you. I mean, no disrespect, but it just seems kind of like the idea was there for the taking.

BAGLEY: It really was, you know. And it struck us as odd, you know, when we started to research it that, you know, when we looked across the nation, there wasn't really anybody doing anything. You know, so it turned out a lot better than we thought.

MARTIN: OK. So now I'm going to definitely put you on the spot. Of all of your - the bar offerings, I know you mentioned the challah grilled cheese was something that you - and the boozy jelly doughnuts, those seem to be going really well - house-made vodka-infused jelly, powdered sugar. What's your favorite thing on the menu?

BAGLEY: Well, I'm kind of a chubby fellow. So I really like boozy doughnuts, man. If I could eat doughnuts 24/7, I'm all in.

MARTIN: And what about the drinks? You've got like a gelt martini, mazel tov Koval cranberry spritzer, Manischewitz sangria bowl.

BAGLEY: Yeah. The Manischewitz sangria bowl, we - it took us a little while to get that one down simply because Manischewitz is really - most people that have had Manischewitz aren't giant fans of it. They usually have a bad story behind it.

MARTIN: (Laughter) It's kind of a nostalgia piece, yeah.

BAGLEY: YEah. So, you know, dressing that up and making it palatable was pretty fun. You know, and we finally figured out the right recipe. We've put some limoncello and some vodka and some fruit juices in there. And it really balances it and makes it delightful.

MARTIN: OK. Well, just being clear - adults only, right? Don't - yeah.

BAGLEY: No. We don't feed those to the kids. The kids - they can have the doughnuts, not the jelly.

MARTIN: Exactly, not the jelly. OK. Well, Happy Hanukkah to you.

BAGLEY: Thanks so much.

MARTIN: That was Kyle Bagley. He's the co-owner of the Graystone Tavern in Chicago and the co-creator of 8 Crazy Nights. It's Chicago's first Hanukkah-themed pop-up bar. Kyle, thanks so much for joining us.

BAGLEY: It was my pleasure, Michel. Have a great day.

MARTIN: If you'd like to see pictures of the 8 Crazy Nights pop-up - I still want one of those sweaters - you can visit our website at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.