Though it’s more than 50 bus stops away from the city’s geographical center, Simon’s Tavern is a hub for many of the thousands of Chicago commuters who pass by the bar each day. Located just steps away from two bus stops on intersecting Chicago Transit Authority routes, the cash-only institution is a true neighborhood tavern, one that strikes a balance between welcoming newcomers and keeping its regulars; the kind of spot to stop in and catch a buzz before the next bus, or watch them go by from the comfort of the mahogany bar top.
Owner Scott Martin’s grandfather drove the public trolley that ran past the Chicago bar in the decade or so after Simon’s opened in 1934. He drank his after-work beers at a bar a couple blocks up, but his true hideout was Simon’s, where he was a regular fixture, even coming with his family in tow on occasion. Like his grandfather, Martin spent much of his life inside the bar, first as a regular, then as the owner. In 1994, Martin bought Simon’s from the family who originally owned it, and has been running it ever since.
Inside, after passing beneath its signature “pickled herring” neon sign—a fish holding a Martini glass— cheap beer and a shot is the typical drink order. The house specialty, however, is homemade glögg, a beloved spiced mulled wine drink that is prepared warm during the holidays and served as a cold slushy in the summer. People from all over the city visit the bar for this stuff, and Martin has even said that the glögg revenue helped save the bar during the pandemic.
The place feels like a living room most days, dimly lit from its 11 a.m. daily open until its 2 a.m. close. Some of the bartenders have worked there for close to 10 years, offering a sense of familiarity that should not be taken for granted in a city that is increasingly seen as a global destination. Plus, Martin emphasizes, both toilets are safe to sit on, bucking the bar’s reputation as a dive.
Before its current iteration, Simon’s operated as a speakeasy in the basement of a grocery store during Prohibition. Then, as now, Martin says, the bar has always been a place to find community. He hopes to keep it that way, because he knows the stories we tell later in life start with the people we come across, whether it’s on a bus or a barstool.
“I love it, and it is a privilege to run the bar,” Martin says. “It’s neat to see people whose friendships we somehow get to encourage.”
To get a sense of the iconic bar on a given night, we sat down with the people who know Simon’s Tavern best: the regulars.
Robert Kraft, 70, poet
When did you start coming here?
Why’d you start coming here?
A friend of mine lived in the neighborhood. And this is a great bar, real old-fashioned. It’s a very comfortable place. So I started coming here with my buddy. And [owner] Scott’s dad was bartending, and he was great. As the years went along, I just came here. Other people came and went, and I stayed. I’ve found a lot of friends—really nice, really intelligent people. And we talk shit, too.
What keeps you coming back?
[Pointing] That bartender, that guy there and that guy right there. They’re good friends of mine.
What do you drink when you come here?
I used to drink a Belgian beer but now I just drink Carlsberg. A pint of Carlsberg and sometimes a shot of Bushmills. [Smiles.] Sometimes—all the time.
What do you think of this place in terms of its location and accessibility?
For me, I live 2 miles north of here. I just walk one block, and I’m on the Clark Street bus, take it to Foster, and I get back on the bus when I go home.
How would you describe the atmosphere and the people here?
I would say, for me, they’re just warm [and] comfortable. I can come in here at any time and see somebody I know. And if I want to talk, I can talk; if I don’t want to talk, that’s fine, too. To me it’s like a neighborhood bar, even though it’s 2 miles away from my house.
The trip is worth it?
It’s totally worth it.
Rachel Kanarowski, 43, mental health educator
When did you first start going to Simon’s?
My grandfather used to drink at Simon’s, and my family will tell stories about back in the old days, when kids could still go inside, and there was the barrel with spreadable cheese and crackers. [Editor’s note: This Great Depression–era tavern earned a reputation for taking care of its patrons from the neighborhood, and that often included offering people free food.] So that’s a fond memory of my mother and her siblings. I started to go to Simon’s in 2001, when I was old enough to drink. Stopping into Simon’s for a glass of hot glögg has always been a tradition.
Is the glögg your drink of choice?
Yeah. Hot glögg in the winter, and glögg slushies in the summer. I wish I knew the recipe. Simon’s serves it traditionally with a gingersnap cookie as well, when it’s the hot glögg in the wintertime. And there’s the tradition of putting the thin gingersnap in the palm of your hand and pressing down on it in the center. If it breaks into three pieces as opposed to two pieces or four pieces, you get your wish. So you can make a wish and see if your ginger cookie will grant your wish. In the summertime, with the glögg slushy, it’s the same mixture, but without the berries and nuts, so it’s kind of like the slushy you would get at your favorite corner store, but much more alcoholic.
How would you describe the atmosphere at Simon’s?
It’s your classic Chicago tavern. We’re losing taverns like this all the time. The focus isn’t on sports; it isn’t on TV. They have two small TVs in either corner of the bar, but usually they’re playing Turner Classic Movies, or if there’s a game on, they’ll probably have it on, but otherwise it’s a really friendly, homey crowd. It has really pulled in everybody from the neighborhood of all ages. It’s a great mix of people.
What do you think about its location and getting there?
Simon’s is just a couple doors down from the [bus] that runs Clark Street, so it’s incredibly easy to access.
What keeps you coming back?
Community is so important. It’s important to our mental health and well-being, and as somebody who lives here in the neighborhood but who lives alone, it’s really important to have places like Simon’s that feel like second homes, where you can walk in by yourself or meet up with friends from the neighborhood and get a chance to get that connection time together.
Wayne Kumingo, 51, film and TV editor
When did you start going to Simon’s?
It’s been long enough that I do not remember the first time I was there. I’ve lived in the neighborhood since the early 2000s and [have] been going on and off ever since. I’ve been going there for maybe 20 years.
What do you like about the bar’s location?
I’ve moved around a few times, but I’m still within striking distance. Clark Street has so much going on, there are so many restaurants and bars up and down that street that it’s not a challenge to go to Simon’s. You go to dinner at some other place, and where are you gonna go for an after-dinner drink? Especially if it’s glögg. It’s a pretty easy decision to make before the end of the evening.
How would you describe the atmosphere at Simon’s?
Everyone likes to say “dive bar,” but I don’t know what that means. Because a dive, to me, means a bunch of old depressing men sitting at a bar and then they get invaded in the evening by all the hipsters. That’s a dive bar. There’s a slightly negative connotation to me when someone says “dive bar,” and I don’t get that feeling from Simon’s. Part of that is because of the jukebox. It’s really one of the best jukeboxes in the city. Maybe, thinking about it, [that] might have really been one of the reasons we went there so frequently once we found out about it.
What do you love about the jukebox?
You get a really good taste in music. If a band had a buzz, you’d go to Simon’s and they’d have the album. It’s so rare to have this curated, semiregularly rotating jukebox of really good music. There’s a handful of other jukebox places in the city I can think of that kind of have the same vibe. The jukebox doesn’t get stale. The TouchTunes thing isn’t quite the same as a curated, finite amount of CDs to pick from. It really sets the vibe in the bar and sets the tone for what to expect. If it’s not glögg season, either hot or cold, then we’re still going in there for the jukebox. I don’t know how many times I’ve put $5 in that thing, because you get 17 plays or 15 plays, something ridiculous. And I don’t even know if the songs came up in the course of the evenings. It’s not even the point.
What do you drink if you’re not having a glögg?
Again, if the glögg is there, I got to get a glögg. It’s one of the reasons I’m going. Although, if you have more than one glögg, it’s a little sugary. Maybe two glöggs. Then I got to switch to something else. They have a decent tap selection. You can find something in there. I’m an IPA drinker more than anything, that’s usually what I go for.