Polish Dive Bar Podlasie Club was about to close. Now it’s a nightlife hotspot
AVONDALE – A red and white sign for Podlasie Club has hung above Avondale’s Central Park Avenue for decades, promising entertainment.
Podlasie Club, 2918 N. Central Park Ave., was one of the most popular Polish nightclubs in the area in the 80s and 90s, filled with working-class Poles dancing the night away to live music. But in recent years, the club has quietened and emptied as the neighborhood gentrified.
Then something unexpected happened: the owners of Podlasie teamed up with a group of young creatives to organize dance parties last summer. The Podlasie Club has once again become one of Chicago’s hottest dance clubs, with young people in their 20s and 30s lining up to dance in the former Polish bar. The club was alive, but for a young generation.
“We had nobody, we were closing at 8-9pm. Then all of a sudden we had 120 people until 3am. It was hard for me to understand that this could actually 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 hotspot. The bar’s first major renovation in decades began last month and is expected to last until spring.
From “extremely dead” to the hottest place in town
Konopka and Pluta’s mother, Danuta Pluta, opened Podlasie Club in 1986 after emigrating from Poland.
At the time, the bar looked like a Polish wedding, with disco lights and tables covered in pink tablecloths near the dance floor, the owners said. Doll couples, including “women wearing their best dresses and full make-up”, filled the club every weekend to see polka bands and other acts aimed at the Polish community, or to grab a drink, said Vitek Pluta.
“They were people who worked hard all week, then that Saturday they went out and had a really good time,” he said.
Business dwindled as more Poles left the area for the suburbs, decimating the clientele. The once bustling dance club has 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 everything down at that time, but they held on to keep their mother’s legacy alive.
“When my mother came from Poland in the 80s, she was able to buy this place four years after arriving in the United States… That’s why we want to keep it. She worked hard for it. Why not keep it in the family? said Konopka.
The revival began 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 in Podlasie a few times and wanted her friends to experience her charm.
Konopka said she remembered getting a phone call from Tobiasz one sleepy Friday night.
Tobiasz “asked if we were open, what time we would be open. And I said, ‘Well, I’m not sure, I only have two clients.’ And she said, ‘Is it possible if you can stay open? Because today is my birthday and I want to come with some of my friends,” Konopka said.
Tobiasz and 20 of his friends – the largest number of Podlasie Club customers in a long time – closed the bar that night, feeling like they had discovered a secret gem. In their excitement, they asked Konopka to revive the old dance floor out back. It had not been used in recent years.
“It had that house party feeling. It was very comfortable,” Tobiasz said.
Tobiasz and his friends kept in touch with Konopka and asked if they could organize a dance party at the bar. Over time, they came up with the idea of organizing a series of monthly events, called the Podlasie Pleasure Club.
Konopka came on board, hoping it might help revive the “extremely dead” company. But just as the collaboration was coming together, the pandemic forced the Podlasie Club to close. Suddenly it was no longer clear that the bar would survive, let alone throw a dance party.
The owners were lucky because their family owns the building, which means they didn’t have a mortgage, but they still struggled to keep the lights on and pay their bartender during the extended shutdown, they said.
Things remained quiet for about a year as the owners fought to save the family business.
“The idea that we were even going to have a successful party was a major storyline,” said Ali Najdi, one of the event series’ founders. “I was optimistic, but I didn’t expect Pleasure Club to explode like it did – and I don’t think anyone else was.”
Last July, the Podlasie Pleasure Club team finally held their first dance party, with the group members creating flyers, sprucing up the space and spreading the word. It was a resounding success. A DJ set by Najdi and Leja Hazer drew around 120 people, double what the owners expected. It was so crowded that some revelers 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 would come. It’ll just be the five of us. But that’s not what happened,” Tobiasz said. safe enough to go out again…. It was a full house, there was a line down the block, which was so crazy for all of us.
This party put Podlasie back on the map. Other DJs and party planners approached Konopka to sign up for the club’s schedule, even though he had no social media presence or website. Soon the Podlasie Club was booked up every weekend, with hundreds of people walking in and out of the bar just like in the 80s and 90s – but this time it was a younger crowd.
As the Podlasie Pleasure Club team continued to throw parties, the organizers helped the owners navigate sudden success. Party organizers wanted the revival to be a collaboration, not a takeover, they said.
While they were drawn to the nightclub for its “unintentionally cool” vibe, they wanted to help bring a deeply rooted family business back into the community.
“For me, it was about making sure we respected the place,” Tobiasz said. “It wasn’t just a place [was] empty and forgotten. There is definitely a community there. It has a long tradition and a long history.
After several months of celebrations, the Podlasie Club closed its doors again in December amid a new wave of COVID-19 cases. The owners have taken advantage of the closure to renovate the club, which is inside a century-old building that hadn’t seen any improvements since their mother bought it in the mid-1980s.
The renovation is hard work: Podlasie will have new walls, ceilings and bathrooms and a bigger dance floor when the project is finished. But the owners also keep 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 follow the right path of construction and renovation. But the little pieces, the bar, it won’t change much. That’s what which made the place come alive,” said Vitek Pluta.
“It was the best thing that ever happened”
The Podlasie Club not only remains open, but it fills a void in Chicago nightlife.
After popular dive bar Danny’s closed in 2020, there aren’t many bars on the northwest side that regularly host dance parties for younger audiences, said Najdi, a fixture in the local music scene who recently worked for the Numero Group label.
Still, Podlasie Club is not “Danny’s 2.0”, said Najdi; he sees it as a cross between Danny’s and Smart Bar. Either way, “there is definitely a need for this space in Chicago,” he said.
“I have a lot of gratitude for Vitek and Violetta, for being open-minded and for letting a group 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.
Gratitude is mutual. The owners said their associates 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 mainly served older Poles before the revamp, Konopka said she was unsure about turning Podlasie into a hip dance club.
“I was skeptical because we never deal with younger audiences. It was always the old Poles. We didn’t know what could happen,” she said. “But it’s the best thing that has arrived.”
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