Any story that starts with spiked coffee & a speakeasy is a good one.
In what is today one of Chicago’s most attractive neighborhoods, it’s possible at first glance to miss the deep Swedish heritage of the area. A second look will quickly reveal Andersonville’s roots, punctuated by dining options, color schemes and even an appropriately painted water tower. Simon’s Tavern serves as dive bar anchor to Andersonville, a pre-Prohibition cultural institution that has been serving historically Swedish locals since before its doors were even officially opened.
Simon’s Tavern stories are endless and there are numerous great resources like the Chicago Bar Project’s amazing telling of the Simon’s Tavern story. All sources agree that Simon’s Tavern predates Prohibition thanks to original owner (and bar namesake) Simon Lundberg’s commitment to serving the local Andersonville community. After opening a small grocery store nearby, Lundberg started to serving a little whiskey in the coffee provided there, earning a reputation that eventually led to the funds and ambition to purchase a more spacious location nearby with a basement fit for a speakeasy.
Simon’s Tavern sits at that address today, the bar opened in 1934, converted from the grocery store that had occupied the first floor. But really the business simply walked up the steps from a basement speakeasy called the N.N. Club (No Name Club) that utilized its own alley entrance. One particular tale of those basement days includes the use of a simple hole in the floor as a kind of burglar alarm. At the spot of trouble, Lundberg could drop a roll of coins through a hole in the floor, alerting those drinking in the basement below to provide some support.
Security was important thanks to Lundberg’s committed practice to cashing the paychecks of the Swedish workers visiting his establishment, providing an alternative to banks or other conversion systems that demanded a commission. Simon took no payment, but of course saw much of the cash flow back into his till in the form of drinks purchased over the subsequent few hours. The remnants of the check cashing operation can be seen today in Simon’s Tavern where a small booth that resembles a movie ticket window still occupies the main room, once used to dispense check cashing proceeds. The regulars that took advantage of the check cashing service can be seen in one of the murals painted onto the wall of the main room of Simon’s Tavern, a host of locals depicted after a successful hunting party.
But before digging into the impressive interior to Simon’s Tavern, the bar’s neon sign must be mentioned, not just one of the best such signs in Chicago but one of the finest dive bar signs anywhere. The twisted neon reflects a fish holding a martini wearing a horned Viking helmet, a unique combination to be sure that serves as homage to the area’s Swedish heritage with a bit of dive bar-friendly embellishment (no, Vikings didn’t wear horned helmets). The fish hangs off of a solid blue marquee with the bar’s name inscribed, all of it above a front door that features unique tiles as its façade. Opaque glass blocks mix with stained tiles above and dark tiles below to create a wholly unique look that matches the uniqueness to be found inside.
The bar inside features a host of original elements lovingly preserved by Lundberg and his son Roy who have both since passed on, leaving the bar in the capable hands of current owner Scott Martin. The wooden bar serves as homage to the S.S. Normandie, an enormous ocean liner launched shortly before the opening of the bar. Unique ship elements can be seen carved into and inscribed across any number of surfaces, the kind of thing that once you know to look for it pops up more with every look. Supported by this epic, well-preserved combination of deep wood, blue lights and history, Simon’s Tavern features a very classic, elegant look despite its dive bar status.
Behind Swedish culture and the S.S. Normandie, maybe the third love of Simon’s Tavern can be seen just above an etching of the famed ship in the bar mirror at the center of the space. An amazing Schlitz lamp depicting a mermaid sitting atop the world can be found here, the first of multiple Schlitz sightings. This is not the cluttered dive bar set of decorations but rather a very clean and purposeful collection of items, many of them holding the nautical theme found through Simon’s Tavern. The wall opposite the bar features a set of murals with the original depiction of regulars in a hunting party scene commanding center stage. One famed activity at Simon’s Tavern is to hunt down the five animals depicted in the mural (no easy feat). Framed photos of the bar through the years can be found along this back wall where additional hightop seating provides overflow from the bar.
No mention of Simon’s Tavern is complete without a sentence or two spent on Glogg, a mulled wine-based concoction served here in traditional warm fashion during the winter months and iced or slushee version in the summer. The house recipe is a secret, of course, and provides Simon’s Tavern with not just another unique element to be appreciated but an additional connection to its Swedish roots. A wooden booth in the bar’s front window provides one of the better views of not only the entire Simon’s Tavern space but also the summer weather Glogg machine when in operation.
And as if Simon’s Tavern needed additional reasons to visit, live music takes over the space on a roughly weekly basis, other events like vinyl music nights sometimes offering incremental entertainment. Out back, blue and yellow chairs and stools (naturally) can be found on a small back patio just through an ancient hallway housing the bar’s two bathrooms. Glass opaque blocks just as in the bar’s front window can be found in each bathroom.
The accolades and stories flow from there, including a visit by Anthony Bourdain and a reputation for being haunted, but even without the heritage, Simon’s Tavern is clearly the dive bar king of its neighborhood. So connected with Andersonville and so connected with its Swedish roots, the experience of grabbing a drink here feels like it means a little bit more and bears the weight of more than just an Old Style in a Chicago neighborhood. Inspired by and committed to the prosperity of the bar’s Swedish neighbors, those good vibes have translated into an experience that today is one of the purest and most elegant dive bar drinking experiences to be found in Chicago.