Nick’s Beer Garden is back open. | Barry Brecheisen/Eater Chicago

The pandemic kept Nick’s Beer Garden closed until recently

“Peaches” has witnessed Nick’s Beer Garden’s entire 44-year-old history, from its origins in Lincoln Park to its current form in Wicker Park. Peaches is the name of a 110-year-old portrait of a woman that hangs on the wall of Nick’s, the 4 a.m. bar along Milwaukee Avenue. The portrait comes from Yugoslavia, and legend has it was owned by Nazi soldiers. A customer who frequented the bar in Lincoln Park — then known as Nick’s Tavern — nicknamed the picture back in the ‘80s.

The painting is a survivor — it sustained three bullets after a shooting in the early ‘80s at the bar. When owner Nick Novich lost his lease at the corner of Halsted and Armitage, he brought Peaches with him to his new space. Nick’s Beer Garden opened in 1994 before Milwaukee Avenue was called the Hipster Highway.

Peaches is dated 1911.

The bar’s now run by Spot On Group, the company that owns Clark Street Ale House and Electric Hotel in River North. And like Lincoln Park in the ‘90s, Wicker Park is going through a similar transformation with gentrification further transforming the area with more families moving in. The cope with those changes, after the state closed bars down in March 2020, Nick’s ownership began a remodeling project so the bar could survive the future.

After months of slumber, the bar reopened earlier this month. Besides giving the interior a healthy gloss, Nick’s will serve food — the back tiki bar has been replaced with a sandwich counter. Even Peaches got a cleaning. Nick’s GM Jeremy McDevitt took the painting to the Chicago Conservation Society where the group spent weeks restoring the painting to its original glory, removing stubborn smoke stains accumulated from the years when Chicago allowed cigarette smoking indoors. The bullet holes remain.

The sign is from Nick’s Uptown.

McDevitt said they hired out-of-work industry workers to do construction. The goal was to keep Nick’s feel intact. McDevitt bartended for 17 years at Burton Place in Old Town before going to culinary school. He says acclaimed chefs Paul Kahan and Brian Huston took him in and he served as the very first intern at the Publican in Fulton Market.

McDevitt wants to give the back room a Nick’s a retro diner feel. Eventually, this will be a place for late-night soft-serve ice cream and burgers. They’re waiting to install the kitchen hood. For now, the food will be simpler with a menu centering center on deli sandwiches. Also, the bar now has an improved 20-tap beer system. Nick’s is no longer just a shot and beer type spot. McDevitt sees changes in Wicker Park where he’ll be able to stock more craft selections like he does at Clark Street Ale House.

Before Nick’s arrival in Wicker Park, Dreamerz held court at 1516 N. Milwaukee Avenue. A haven for misfits who rebelled against the sports bar and grills that dominated the era, Dreamerz, a counter-culture punk rock bar, is representative of Wicker Park’s past. Recently McDevitt uncovered a keepsake from that bygone time and found Dreamerz’s original liquor license buried among a pile of artifacts at the bar. That license was hand signed by Chicago Mayor Harold Washington — this wasn’t a red stamp.

This may be a sign. Nick’s is known for the occasional Blues band and will continue to host music. But after finding the liquor license, McDevitt is open to new music genres.

“My sister was a big punk rock fan from the Dreamerz days,” McDevitt says.

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