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A Little Bollywood on the North Side

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Bollywood Nights Bar & Grill

2639-41 W. Peterson

773-728-7000

Last Friday, less than a week before its May 12 grand opening, Bollywood Nights Bar & Grill was humming with activity. On one side of the room, two men hammered away at the foundation for a clear Lucite stage that will be lit up from within. The DJ, the chef, and the bouncer sat by the bar and talked while keeping an eye on the Bulls game. Several men--cousins of one of the owners--sat at a white-clothed table in front of the small TV, drinking Cokes.

In the middle of the room, between taking phone calls and directing the activity around them, owners Benhur Samson and Waqas Mirza were engrossed in an interview with a heavily made-up belly dancer. They asked her rate; she said it was $150 per show. They asked if she had experience dancing to Bollywood music--songs from the lush productions India's film industry is famous for. She told them she did--not only that, several friends know the choreographed numbers as well and regularly perform at "crossover parties," as gatherings of Arabs and Indians are called.

"I've never seen a belly dance in my life," admitted Samson, a 43-year-old who grew up in Hyderabad, India, and moved here in 1987 (his mother chose his name after seeing the film Ben-Hur). His first job in Chicago was pressing shirts at an Elmhurst dry cleaner at a rate of a quarter each. He worked a string of other dead-end jobs--including sweeping the Willy Wonka candy factory in Itasca--before meeting a man through his church who worked in the insurance industry and was willing to take a chance on Samson. Soon he was winning sales contests ("I won every trip they ever had," he said) and marrying the boss's daughter (they've since divorced). These days he lives in Carol Stream and works in the banking industry, processing credit card accounts for First Data Resource, the largest such processor in the country. But if his new business takes off, Samson said, he'll quit banking to make Bollywood Nights his full-time job.

Mirza, a 33-year-old from Lahore, Pakistan, came to Chicago in 1993. He earned an associate's degree in general studies from Wright College before taking his current job as a travel agent at Adam Travel downtown. He'd been in Chicago for about a year when a mutual friend introduced him to Samson. They became fast friends, bonding over their love of nightlife and reggae and bhangra music. They started going out to clubs like Zentra, Drink, Excalibur, and Red Nova together, and pretty soon they began talking about opening up their own.

Mirza, who lives in Morton Grove and travels frequently for work, is a big fan of the upscale nightclubs in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, which has a large Indian population. During one trip there he discovered a club called Mehfil, which features northern Indian food and provocative dancers (and a mostly male clientele). "I thought, we need clubs like that here. There's nothing like that here," he said. In particular, he liked that Mehfil, which now has three locations in Dubai, catered to an older, sophisticated clientele. "I went [to Dubai] a few more times, just to be in that atmosphere," he said. "I thought, if I'm that desperate, there must be others too."

The idea of opening such a place in Chicago sat on the back burner until two months ago, when Mirza called Samson and told him it was time to make a move. "There are so many places opening in Dubai and Singapore and London," he said. "American Pakistanis and Indians are so far behind."

"The 18-to-25-year-olds have their clubs, but there's no place for people over 35 to enjoy their Bollywood music or take their wife or girlfriend out," said Samson. "I saw that there was a huge gap, that there were people who needed a place like this. . . . They don't want loud noise; they want to sit back and listen to live music and dance, something they can kick back and enjoy. That's why we're going to have hookahs on every table."

Mirza said he found the space, which used to be the Mediterranean restaurant Prestige, the first day he started looking. Mirza likes the location--on Peterson a few blocks east of California--because it's near the Indo-Pak strip on Devon Avenue, but far enough away to offer easier street parking. He and Samson have redone the place, painting the pink walls white, installing dramatic blue lights, and adding a serious sound system and the stage, but a lot of old elements remain: a couple of the old waitresses will don Indian outfits, and, rather than hire a new chef, Mirza and Samson have arranged for David Mirzapolos, the Greek chef at Prestige, to learn a few Indian dishes like pakoras, samosas, and pasanday (boneless lamb chop) kebabs under the tutelage of a cook at the Devon restaurant Sabri Nehari, which is owned by a friend of Mirza's family.

Some of Mirzapolos's old menu items, such as hummus, falafel, fattoush, and dolmeh, will carry over. He'll also offer grilled catfish. Prices range from $5 for two samosas to a $21 lamb chop.

"We didn't want a typical Indian menu," said Samson. "We want to be open to a lot more communities than that. David knows how to cook Mediterranean food, which is much blander, so we can serve from bland to hot. Our American crowd would probably like the blander food better." The bar is stocked with the usual choices plus liquor imported from India, including Old Monk rum, Peter Scot and Royal Challenge whiskey, Sikkim Snow Lion white rum, and Karma beer.

The name of the place refers to the center of Indian moviemaking, the city of Bombay (now called Mumbai). Bollywood Nights will feature Bollywood music and dancing, and the walls will soon be decorated with pictures of Bollywood stars. "The name rings a bell in the general mind," said Samson. "We don't want to be ethnic, but to be open to everybody. . . . That's why we chose Bollywood instead of an Indian name."

This week's entertainment lineup features Vancouver, B.C.-based dancers Robin Merchant and Melena Rounis, plus a couple of belly dancers. The week of May 26 will be headlined by another Canadian dancer, Krystal Kiran Garib, who appeared in Andrew Lloyd Webber's recent Broadway production of Bombay Dreams. Doors open at 6, and dancing starts at 7. The kitchen closes at midnight; the club stays open till 3 AM on Saturdays and 2 AM other nights, except Monday, when it's closed. There's no cover.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Rob Warner.

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