Since 1989, Lonie Walker’s Underground Wonder Bar was inside a tiny garden-level spot at 10 E Walton. About a year ago, they moved to an interim location beneath The Joynt at Dearborn and Erie. Finally, on Sunday, the late-night lounge will celebrate its official re-opening in its new, more spacious location at 710 N. Clark, where bands will jam on for 12 hours straight, from four in the afternoon until four in the morning.
Last Thursday, Greg and Debbie Piehl stopped by the bar’s new location for the first time after a dinner at Joe’s Stone Crab. They make the trip to the city from Princeton about three times a year, and the Wonder Bar has always been a regular stop.
“We like to listen to some good live music, you know?” Greg said. “It’s local, different music here, and there’s a very homey feel.”
The Piehls, like most patrons accustomed to the original bar, noticed that you don’t immediately walk downstairs anymore. Lonie, the bar’s founder, visionary, and front-woman of the house band, is fine with that, because it makes the bar more accessible for people in wheelchairs.
“We needed enough sober people to walk them down the stairs,” Lonie said. Spend one late night at the Underground Wonder Bar, and you’ll understand why this could be a challenge.
There is still an underground part of the bar. Upon entry, patrons of the original location will recognize the red triangular sign beneath which countless locals, tourists, industry folk, musicians, and more have smiled big and thrown their arms up in a V for a picture. The sign now hangs above some stairs that lead down to the lower lounge, dubbed the UnderWonder, where red lights cast a dim glow over the seating and tables. There’s a second bar down there and almost always a DJ spinning late at night.
“We’re trying to figure out the vibe downstairs,” said Kasey O’Brien, who’s been bartending there for about three months. As a graduate of the Chicago College of Performing Arts at Roosevelt University, she’d like to see the UnderWonder host some live readings in the vein of The Moth.
The main room features high ceilings, a long and well-stocked bar, and artifacts transplanted from the original location.
“It’s the old place on steroids,” Lonie said.
The sidebar—a black polished plank for drink-resting “with all the crazy tiers,” as Lonie puts it—is from the original, as is a metal cutout of a piano that once served as the outdoor marquee. The tables, which have been painted and stickered over the years, are lined up opposite the bar. Soon, each of them will be surrounded by what Lonie calls the “cozy comfy couches” from the old place.
The stage is in the back, where Lonie’s grand piano has found a new home. Lonie remembers with a laugh how it used to be that patrons would have to walk through the band to get to the restrooms. The lavatories are still behind the band, but the guitarists no longer need to lift up their axes like sentinels to let one past.
The Underground Wonder Bar is not your typical bar, because Lonie Walker is not your typical bar owner, or person for that matter. She is much better. She’s a hugger, not a hand-shaker. She’s builder, a lover of the arts, and herself a musician of 36 years. Lonie Walker & Her Bad Ass Company Band take their energetic cabaret-style act to the stage on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. Even her sons play regularly in their band Taggart Transcontinental, a blend of hip-hop, jazz, and spoken-word poetry that deserves its own full review.
On Mondays, Underground Wonder Bar features an open mike hosted by local musician Pete Special whose voice occupies a place somewhere between Tom Waits and Dr. John. On one particular Monday, a mix of musicians with varying styles and hometowns took the stage. There were three energetic young male/female duos from New York, Kansas City, and St. Charles. There was a man who hours earlier had been compelled to perform a few songs he’d been practicing, so he rolled a joint, grabbed his guitar, and told his wife he’d be back late. Toward the end of the night, Matt Spiegel, lead singer of local tribute band Tributosaurus, hopped on stage and sang a few numbers with his brother Jon Spiegel, an instructor at The Old Town School of Folk Music, on guitar.
On a Thursday, Noah Zaves, a 24-year-old visitor from California who runs his own bay area cultural magazine, stopped by the new Underground Wonder Bar having never seen the original. While watching Smokin’ Joe Thomas play “Castles Made of Sand,” he said, “It seems like a lot of bars around here are trying to be trendy or hip or exclusive, but this place is cool with just being a friendly spot for good music. The owner’s really eccentric and cool too.”
Lonie looks for a familiar vibrancy in her employees, who work alongside her own kin. Months ago, they all gathered for a tearful ceremony at 10 E Walton, where she turned off the glowing fluorescent sign that had projected the words “Real Fun Music” to curious passersby and regular patrons from the window for 21 years. Now, the same sign invites those interested in good music with good people from the window of 710 N. Clark. The motto of the Underground Wonder Bar has always been “Come Home.” On Sunday, they’ll celebrate their new one.