Two Cups of Punch at Punch House in Pilsen
It is entirely possible to feel nostalgia for something you have never, ever experienced—not even a little bit. In my case, it’s more like the tragic yearnings of a born-in-the-wrong-era old soul, but nostalgia just sounds better and less like something a crazy person would say.
On the Saturday night of opening weekend, it’s crowded at Dusek’s—the new eatery that occupies one street-level corner of the re-established Pilsen landmark Thalia Hall (1227 W. 18th St.). The whole place seems to sparkle, from pressed tin ceilings to candle-lit tables. I am with my dad and we stand side by side, taking it all in, mutually enchanted. One of the many things I get from him is an unceasing sense of wonder. Or maybe we’re just easily amused.
Next to Dusek’s main door, stairs descend into the basement, and glowing white neon arrows urge us on.
There, we find Punch House: where the surroundings are so authentic, where everything hits the mark, and the mark is the basement of the coolest parents your parents knew in 1956. My dad immediately loves Punch House.
Born in 1945, he is a child of the '50s, and he swivels his head from side to side to take in the long, low couches, the tile, the mismatched lamps, and the cone-shaped lights that dangle above U-shaped booths. He is a man transported. I’m just along for the ride. I squeeze in at the center of the crowded bar in front of the built-in fish tank—the brightest light in the entire space, which casts a white-blue glow in all directions—to peruse the menu.
Divided evenly into contemporary and classic punches—four of each—the classics each list their year of inception, ranging in date from the 1600s to 1835. I order us two contemporaries, the Sanyal Punch and the Space Juice for Jered. They arrive quickly in lovely little glasses, the Sanyal Punch garnished with a sliced round of lime, while a fresh sage leaf floats atop the Space Juice.
Each of our drinks is enlivened by their respectively unique aromas. The sage of the Space Juice stands up against its six competing ingredients—aged reposado tequila, sparkling wine that fades into the background as the ice melts, mellow black pepper, and tart grapefruit and aperol that merge smoothly with the oak of the reposado at the finish.
Likewise, the Sanyal’s base spirit is a curried pisco (South American brandy made from grapes), which smells spicier than it tastes. Don’t be scared off by the inclusion of chili flakes in this drink; the musky, floral Darjeeling tea lingers beneath the powerful curry with pineapple and citrus juices, resulting in a dangerously easy-to-drink, slightly sweet cup.
Together at the far end of the granite bar, we survey the space: the line of high-backed stools and booths already overflow with a thin mob of bodies. Wood paneling runs along one wall from end to end, at the center of which a huge marlin is mounted, perpetually leaping over a table.
“This is the kind of paneling that lined every basement in the '50s,” my dad says, and he looks giddy like a child. His knees bob with the music. Right down to the arguably gaudy tile on the floor—which looks spookily similar to the tiles that lined the basement of his parents’ house in Skokie—no detail has been spared.
In a way, I envy his connection to this moment of eerily accurate living memory. All the little components coalesce into a massive, unignorable bubbling of nostalgia for what may have seemed like a simpler time.
Together, all of it is working: the spell has been cast.
But the bewitching thing about nostalgia is the way we manage to ever-so-slightly alter the fabric of a moment in time. It’s just enough that it remains mostly intact and mostly accurate, but it lingers in our minds as something perfect, something better, something un-gettable. Somehow, I have a feeling I won’t have trouble recreating that sensation at Punch House. They’ve all but built a functioning time machine. Or maybe it was the punch. Someone spiked the punch.
Photo: © Timothy Burkhart, Groupon