By Joseph Hernandez
In the 1950s and '60s, led by the likes of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, the countercultural, soul-searching Beats traveled the globe to experience new cultures and define their own for a generation of followers.
Beatniks, on the other hand, were the original hipsters, black- and beret-clad, shallow in their artistic pursuits and too cool for school — caricatures of their more literate counterparts.
Taking its cues from the former, even as its name references the latter, Beatnik is the newest restaurant from the Bonhomme Hospitality Group (Celeste, Black Bull, Fulton Market Kitchen). Opening next Wednesday, at the corner of Chicago and Ashland avenues in West Town, the concept is at once Bohemian and opulent, global and approachable. At least, that's the team's goal.
Manning the open kitchen are executive chef Marcos Campos and chef de cuisine Jonathan Meyer. Campos, who also calls the shots in Spanish-focused Black Bull, is using the opportunity at Beatnik to expand his worldview.
Guests visit Black Bull for tapas true to Spain, he says, "but here, (Meyer) and I get to do whatever we want. We're not married to some idea of authenticity here."
The globe-spanning menu is an international dinner party, says Campos, remixing the Mediterranean concept of mezze (small plates) with flavors from Korea, Mexico and India, to name a few. "People want to travel, try something new. We can serve that at the table." Large-format, family-style fare will round out the smaller offerings.
Many opening dishes are noticeably colorful. Scallop crudo is artfully scattered on vintage-style plates, and dotted with peach and hibiscus aguachile, hearts of palm and sesame chia seeds. Curry meatballs are a shock of orange, set in a pool of vibrant green English pea puree; violet-hued beet hummus is topped with blue cheese, fried chickpeas, roasted pepitas and drops of fragrant basil oil . Lego-like bricks of fried halloumi are served with tomato and quince jam with preserved lemon and cucumber yogurt.
"We want to cover your table with great food," says Meyer. "We're ready to play with techniques — can Korean barbecue transform a Lebanese dish? Why not?"
Drinks come from Bonhomme's group beverage director Liz Pearce (also owner of The Drifter), with an assist from bar director Jacyara de Oliveira. (Fun fact: They've both been regional winners of the Speed Rack bartending competition.)
"We want people to lean into brunch and hang out a little bit," says Pearce. "We want to serve drinks that don't have you feeling like a scumbag on a Sunday afternoon."
Inspired by the London cocktail duo Kelsey Ramage and Iain Griffiths, who founded Trash Tiki, Pearce and de Oliveira are adopting sustainability practices for the bar from the outset. "There can be a lot of waste," says Pearce, from straws to food scraps.
"We want to rethink how we prep" and use ingredients, says de Oliveira. Take the "cutting board vodka," an ever-changing offering currently being infused with the remaining citrus zests from cut fruit and garnishes. The two are also preserving seasonal ingredients to use in the height of winter.
De Oliveira has spent time behind the bar at Drawing Room and Sportsman's Club, but recently returned to Chicago from working in Seattle and, before that, Brazil. For her, the drink list at Beatnik reflects the narrative of a traveler "who has spent time in all these places, absorbing the culture and the people," expressing those influences through food and drink.
Eleven cocktails make up the opening menu, with slushies and large-format offerings in the works. Mirroring the kitchen's ethos, spirits span the globe, as evidenced in the Equatorial Gatherings, made with tequila, pimento dram, guava, grapefruit and lime, or the Color of the Crocus, a blend of Mexican aguardiente (a clear spirit similar to rum), carrot, saffron, ginger and elderflower.
Pearce manages Beatnik's wine list. Bottles will hover around a very reasonable $45, with 15 or so by-the-glass choices. "It's not precious," says Pearce. Common options like New Zealand sauvignon blanc and Aussie shiraz will share space with wines from Macedonia, Serbia and Sicily. "These wines are made old-school, so fewer chemicals, and by default, more organic and sustainable, because that's how they've always done it." Bottles from lesser-known regions will be sourced with an eye toward grapes indigenous to those areas.
Beatnik's decor is as eclectic and colorful as its menu. Three spaces — "vignettes," says Daniel Alonso, Bonhomme partner — define the sprawling restaurant, which occupies a former discount clothing store. "We only kept the four walls." The front cocktail lounge, with layers of old paint and drywall and an opulent brass bar set atop a vintage Italian counter, is inspired by warmly worn tavernas in cities like Madrid and Buenos Aires, says Alonso. The large, enclosed, year-round courtyard, filled with lush palms, slowly climbing ivy, and stately fiddleleaf figs, was inspired by the interior courtyards common throughout Andalusia in Spain. The large dining room is layered with colorful rugs, midcentury chandeliers sourced from Hollywood's Century Plaza Hotel, even doors once found at grand homes in Indonesia.
Does the aesthetic hark back to the Beats? Jury's still out, but the effect of the design is warm opulence, which Alonso is proud of. "We want to age into our decor. We want the space to reflect the warmth of the kitchen and food," he says. "Come eat, stay a while."
To borrow a phrase from Beatnik parlance: "Sounds wild."
Beatnik, 1604 W. Chicago Ave., www.beatnikchicago.com