Pop-up bars have become the latest craze in nightlife entertainment over recent years. The idea of a pop-up is that a restaurant or bar will provide an experience that is not typical of their normal fare. Décor and menu items will be updated to reflect the theme of the pop-up while attending patron interact with any additional elements that supplement the pop-up experience.
Pop-ups are nothing new, but there has been an uptick in the quantity and quality of pop-ups around. Especially in Chicago where most of the pop-ups are modeled after television shows and movies that are either popular or provoke a deep sense of nostalgia. In the last year, Chicago has seen pop-up bars for pop culture icons such as Saved by the Bell, Stranger Things, and Tommy Wiseau’s The Room.
The whole point of the pop-up is to generate novelty appeal. People enjoy, or have enjoyed, these elements of pop culture and desire to spend money in an establishment that puts the patron through an immersive experience while creating an atmosphere that generates fanfare easily uploaded to Facebook or Instagram.
The business model of these pop-ups is driven by two things: novelty and scarcity. The novelty stems from the overall theme or content of the pop-up. The scarcity comes from the limited runs of these pop-ups. While a show like Stranger Things is currently very popular, a permanent establishment may not last long and could lose its luster over time. So, by creating a temporary experience in a permanent space and limiting the hours, you’re bound to generate a lot of buzz that leads to a high demand. It is something that won’t be around long and not everyone gets to experience, so patrons will make the time to visit and spend money.
On the flip side, there is a lot of legitimate criticism around the very idea of pop-ups. Pop-ups are sometimes seen as lazy and unoriginal. By relying on the appeal of a pop-up, some skeptics see that venues are unconcerned with repeat business; when the pop-up ends then there is no need to visit that establishment again. While those are valid criticisms, they are a bit cynical. Restaurants and bars have to drum up business anyway they can. And in a major food city like Chicago, that is especially true. So, pop-ups help.
The legality of pop-ups can also be an issue as well. Some pop-ups based on intellectual property and not officially sanctioned by the license holder can be issued a cease-and-desist letter. This happened to the Stranger Things pop-up when Netflix felt the restaurant was violating intellectual property, fair use, and copyright laws. However, surprisingly, I’ve seen several pop-ups last for their intended length without threat of lawsuit.
I have visited three pop-ups since this craze hit Chicago. Only three because I haven’t really cared about the theme of most of the pop-ups. I didn’t feel the need to go to something representing a movie or a television that meant nothing to me, where I wouldn’t get the references, and be served overpriced drinks.
The first I attended was Moe’s Tavern in October. Modeled after the Homer’s favorite bar in The Simpsons, it was a pop-up dedicated to everyone’s favorite yellow family. The pop-up was hosted at Replay in Lakeview (formerly Headquarters) and was open during the normal business hours. I went early one afternoon by myself and checked it out. There were cardboard standouts, character decals on the walls, some framed art, and stuff hanging from the ceiling. The drink specials were cocktails referencing things form the show. However, the signature drink was “The Flaming Moe.” Named after a drink in one of the episodes, it was a shot of liquor mixed with something to mimic the children’s cough syrup flavor and then lit on fire. Needless to say, the drink was awful but the pop-up bar was amusing. That was my reference point for pop-ups.
A few weeks ago, I went to my second pop-up. Again, it was at Reply. However, this time, the theme revolved around [adult swim]’s Rick & Morty. Turner Broadcasting, owner of [adult swim], had contacted Replay but gave the bar permission to run the pop-up through February 11th in an unofficial capacity. I went with some friends this time and it was fun. Same deal as The Simpsons pop-up a few months earlier. With this being my second pop-up, I was already forming an impression of what they should be.
A few weeks ago, it was announced a pop-up commemorating Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining was going to open in Ukrainian Village at a bar called The Rookery (not to be confused with the famous building in the Loop). Named “Room 237,” after a legendary documentary detailing conspiracy theories form fans of Kubrick’s films, this pop-up was set to create the experience of visiting the Overlook Hotel.
One afternoon, a friend of mine and I decide to go check it out. I looked on Yelp what the business hours were and we set out on a 30-minute bus ride from my apartment. We got to the bar and were pleased it was lightly attended. This meant the pop-up wouldn’t be too crowded. We asked where the pop-up was and were told that it was closed. We learned that the pop-up was only open one night a week. And the host gave use details about the first weekend it was opened. He said the pop-up didn’t open until 9 PM, but people were arriving as early as 7 PM. And so many people came that a line formed that led out of the bar and down the street for over a quarter-mile. These were people waiting in freezing temperatures for several hours to have a drink in a place that had stuff from The Shining on the walls. We left.
Based on my experience with The Simpsons and Rick & Morty pop-ups, I had developed assumptions about the “Room 237” experience. I told my friend how lame it was to generate scarcity on such a level that people would have to wait several hours in the cold. We learned that the Rookery was going to open on Friday to break up the demand. My friend suggested we go then and I begrudgingly agreed. I had already made up my mind that “Room 237” was lame.
Friday finally came and I met my friend at the Rookery. He got there a little after 7 PM, but was the first person there to put his name on the list. Chicago had experienced a snowstorm with a high accumulation of snow that started falling the previous night. Plus, the Winter Olympics opening ceremony was airing. I hoped both those things would keep people at home and make the experience of the pop-up less crowded.
Despite being told the pop-up would open at 8 PM, our names were called first at around 9:15 PM. The bouncer let us go up the stairs into a small room. Immediately, I could tell this was a little more classy and planned than my previous two pop-up experiences. The furniture and décor accurately matched the film. There was a rug and throw pillow with the same design as the Overlook’s carpet in the film. The bar had the same golden glow as the bar in the film’s Gold Room. There were curtains that opened to reveal painted mountain landscapes. A projector was displaying shots and scenes from the film. And, best of all, there was a table with a typewriter and surrounded by paper with “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” written all over it. I could see this pop-up was on a whole different level than what I experienced before and I started to lighten up.
The best part of the experience were the staged actors. The bartender was dressed like the ghostly bartender in the film. He also interacted with an actor dressed up like Jack Torrance, Jack Nicholson’s classic character. And, occasionally, two women dressed as the Grady Twins would show up, stand motionless and quiet at the end of the hall, and disappear without you knowing.
I had drinks with my friend and we took in the décor. Everything was cleverly designed. You could even find “REDRUM” scrawled on the interior of the bathroom door where initially unnoticed until you looked into the mirror to wash your hands. It was a very fun experience.
Music also played in “Room 237” was well. The film’s score was featured, but you would also hear the most famous song from the film played every so often. At the end, as the camera dollies towards a framed photo revealing Jack Torrance at a New Year’s Eve party in 1929, the song playing is Ray Noble’s version of Al Bowlly’s “Midnight, the Stars and You.” Noble recorded the song with his orchestra on the Victor label in 1934. The inclusion of that song added an extra level of sinister familiarity to the pop-ups décor. Also on the wall was an enlarged version of that photograph seen at the end of The Shining.
This pop-up really stood out for me. I was expecting just tacky art on the wall, but the music, furniture, and characters really gave this pop-up life and credibility. I wouldn’t have waited hours in the freezing Chicago weather to get in. However, the time we put in and chilled at the bar downstairs prior was worth the trouble and “Room 237” really did set a standard. After such an incredible Chicago snowstorm, it was the best place to be.