To thousands of long-time residents who’ve made it the center of Mexican-American culture in Chicago, the neighborhood is known as Pilsen. To anyone who’s looked for an apartment in the Reader in the last 20 years, it’s known as “Hot Pilsen.” Long hyped as the next Ukie Village or Bucktown, Pilsen has proven admirably resistant to wholesale gentrification. But with its 2009 opening, Simone’s joins Skylark has a hip, eco-friendly bar, restaurant and cultural space that blends with, and adds to, the neighborhood’s eclectic character.
Simone’s comes with a rock-solid pedigree, the result of a joint venture between some of the people behind Northside and Logan Bar & Grill, the venerable Danny’s and the Francesca dining chain. It takes one look to see that Simone’s was built with a lot of thought and a hefty decorating budget. Look for Simone’s well-lit but understated exterior along a mostly residential section of 18th street just east of Pilsen’s main commercial strip, where an excellent north-bound view of the city’s skyline awaits.
Simone’s has been certified by the Green Restaurant Association for its commitment to environmentally responsible practices. That starts with the solar panels on the roof and extends to the collection of recycled and re-purposed elements inside, cobbled together from pieces from the recent past and not too distant future. The sizeable main bar area is built around an island service bar that offers seating on all four sides. The bar top is made from a bowling alley lane. The fixtures above incorporate old bottles. The theme continues with booths made from high school chemistry lab tables, seating covered in seat belt fabric and a bar back and wall fixtures assembled from old video games, pinball tables and possibly pachinko machines. At the back of the room, a raised caged-in platform conjures images of the country bar in Blues Brothers and the fighting arena in Escape from New York. Here you’ll find the DJ booth, also built from pinball machines, and a cozy lounge space for small groups or perhaps groupies.
The graffiti mural along the wall at the rear or the room, painted by local street artists, leads to a spacious second bar area and performance space known as the Lab, which you’ll understand when you see the décor. The Lab features a completely separate service bar and sound system from the front room. This space handles over-flow crowds on weekends and is also used for art exhibitions, lectures and a variety of cultural events, as well as being a participating venue for the monthly Pilsen 2nd Friday art walks. Monitors are abundant as part of the design, but are more likely to show ironic videos and movies than current events and if you do find a game on the TVs, it’s almost certainly going to be without sound.
Simone’s drink list is as compelling as the bar’s décor. Beer lovers will enjoy the seasonally rotated selection of ten high-end drafts, plus another ten options in easy to recycle cans, many of them imports and craft labels. There are another 20 bottled beers and 15 “large format” brews, all of which can run you anywhere from $3-$30 dollars. There are almost a dozen wines available by the glass and also an impressive list of signature house cocktails including a cocktail of the week. The group I was with tried most of them and we were generally impressed. I particularly enjoyed the “Brandi’s a Peach” cocktail: a blend of Knot-infused Irish whiskey, aperol—a bitter orange liqueur—and brandied peaches. As an after dinner drink, who needs dessert? You’ll find specials from Sunday through Thursday and semi-regular events ranging from DJs spinning rock-hip hop mash-ups and disco sets to team trivia contests. One note: the bartenders are lightning quick with their empty drink collection. If you want to savor the last few drops of your beverage, guard it dearly.
Simone’s offers a promising looking menu of apps, salads, sandwiches and pizzas, including a few nods to the neighborhood cuisine, like assorted empanadas. As I don’t get to the area often, I was left with a choice of eating at Simone’s or one of the many authentic family-owned Mexican eateries along 18th street. I opted for the latter (Nuevo Leon is tough to resist), but promise to be back for a future lunch, dinner or weekend brunch.
The crowd is a nice mix of the 40-and-under set from the neighborhood and beyond. Simone’s has built enough buzz in its short existence that it’s become a destination for those looking for a viable drinking option off the traditional beaten path. There’s a mildly Goth/alternative/hipster vibe that’s in tune with Simone’s unique atmosphere, but the mood is casual and so is the attire. Simone’s is open daily from 11:30am-2am.
A striking, one-of-a-kind, environmentally responsible space, Simone’s is an excellent place to practice some mildly irresponsible behavior. If you like Simone’s, you might want to give the nod to Cleo’s, Cobra Lounge or perhaps California Clipper. For more information, check out Simone’s website. Cheers.