Simo Yacobi, the owner/proprietor of the charming French bistro Chez Simo, 1968 W. Lawrence Ave., came to Chicago 23 years ago from his native Morocco to study computer science at what was then called Loop College. While a student, he started working at a French restaurant downtown, the well-known Le Bordeaux.
And basically, Yacobi has worked in restaurants ever since.
“What I know best is restaurants,” Yacobi, 46, said recently in a relaxed conversation in his bistro. He said he has worked in all aspects of the restaurant business. “The kitchen, the front, management, accounting,” he recalled. “From A to Z. Everything you want, I did it.”
In addition to Morocco (he was born on a U.S. military base there), Yacobi has lived in Paris and Avignon, France, as well as Belgium.
The name “Chez Simo” literally translates from the French as “At Simo’s home.” Yacobi, an easygoing, very friendly man, said, “When you come here, I want to treat you like family. I want people to take their time, bring their wine, and to enjoy.”
(Speaking from a one-meal experience, this reporter can say that Yacobi’s aims seem to have been realized. This past Valentine’s Day, my significant other and I enjoyed a great meal at Chez Simo, along with many other diners packing the restaurant that February evening.)
What’s especially good at Chez Simo? Well, the menu is small, comprised of “classic French dishes,” and that’s just the way Yacobi wants it. (“I’d rather have a small menu,” he said.) According to the owner, “Number one is the duck breast and leg confit.” Other specialties of the house? “Coq au Vin – chicken in red wine, with bacon (lardon). Steak au poivre.” Standouts among the appetizers? “Ragoût De Champignons – sautéed mushroom in Madeira wine, shallots and garlic. Escargot with garlic, Pernod.” And finally, recommendations if we have room for dessert? “Crème brûlée, and Apple tart (called “Tarte Tatin” on the bistro’s classic-looking, brief menu).”
Prices at Chez Simo are fairly reasonable, especially for a French restaurant. Yacobi estimates the average price of a meal at his bistro at $30, including appetizer, entrée, and dessert.
Yacobi is operating Chez Simo as a BYOB place, and he said he does not plan on getting a liquor license “at this time.” According to the Moroccan, “(The BYOB) is encouraging people from the neighborhood to come. I see a lot of people have their own good wines. People bring Champagne. We have a lot of Champagne. Champagne is in again.”
Generally, how has business been at Chez Simo over its maiden year? “Up and down,” Yacobi said. “The weekends are steady. But the weekdays you never know.”
And how about the construction for the big Mariano’s/LA Fitness complex at Lawrence and Ravenswood, a few blocks to the east?
“It was a nightmare,” Yacobi remembered. “It started the first week we opened. A lot of the neighbors didn’t know we were here. My side (of the street) was blocked.”
And don’t forget all the snow and cold Mother Nature tossed our way this past year. “If I survived the construction and the winter, I’m OK,” recalled Yacobi.
A little over a year ago, out of work for about 6 months, Yacobi was driving by the site of his restaurant, just east of Lawrence and Damen. “There was a big sign in the window,” he said of the empty storefront space, which housed various restaurants for years. “(I) decided right away,” he said. “Convenient, close to home. This is the one … I put everything on the table … Three months later, we were open.”
As we approach the French national holiday, Bastille Day, on July 14, and as residents of Ravenswood watch the Lycée Français de Chicago being built near the corner of Wilson and Damen, we thought we’d check in on the one-year old Chez Simo, which is only about a 10-minute walk up Damen from the new home of Lycée Français, which we first profiled in the Feb. 12-18 issue of Inside-Booster.
Turns out that Yacobi is well-acquainted with the people behind the Lycée. Referring to the school’s current address at 613 W. Bittersweet Pl., Yacobi said, “I did a lot of activity with them at Irving Park and Sheridan. They have a few festivals that they do … (such as) Festival de Francophone, twice a year. I catered the festival. All the staff is wonderful. Some of them come to the restaurant.”
Asked if he thinks the opening of the French/English Lycée, scheduled for fall 2015, will impact his business, Yacobi said, “I think so. Maybe when they open, I’ll open for lunch.”
The school could be teaching as many as 850 students. Add in faculty and staff, and you have plenty of potential customers for a good French meal. And with annual tuition at the pre-K-12 school now at $16,700, it seems these families are accustomed to good dining.
The French-speaking community in the Chicago area has never gotten much attention, and is certainly much smaller than communities such as Spanish-speakers, or Polish-speakers. Still, as the steel-and-concrete skeleton of the new Lycée Français de Chicago rises in Ravenswood, let’s take a look at this group. According to our restaurateur Yacobi, who is quoting no less than the Consulat Général de France à Chicago, there are 4,000 French citizens in the Chicago area. And, he adds, there are an estimated 30,000 French speakers in the metropolitan area, many from countries other than France where French is spoken, such as in northern Africa, where Yacobi was born and raised.
By the way, Yacobi and his wife, who also works at the restaurant, only speak French at home, intent on teaching their two young children – a five-year old son and a three-year old daughter – their native language.
Yacobi also has an 18-year old stepdaughter, Kanza Elkadiri, who is a college student at the American University in Paris, studying psychology. Fluent in French, English, and Arabic, Kanza is helping out in her step-dad’s bistro for the summer, while she’s home on break, working as a hostess. As a resident of the French capital, she offered high praise for the food, the menu, and the decor at Chez Simo. “It’s the best,” she said. “You’re feeling like you’re in a bistro there (in Paris).”
Yacobi describes himself as a “people person,” and anyone who’s spent five minutes with this man would be hard-pressed to dispute that. In addition to the usual functions of a restaurant, Yacobi has ideas about opening up his restaurant to the community, for activities from learning a language, to discussions, to soccer, to learning to cook. “I like to get involved … Anyone have any ideas?,” he asked in our chat. “The space is here. When we were in France, or Morocco, you used what was available. (As we used to say,) ‘One hand doesn’t clap.’”
In the past year, two French restaurants have closed in the Ravenswood area. But in addition to Chez Simo, at least two other French-themed establishments stand ready in the neighborhood for the Lycée Français and all other comers eager for a croissant or a café au lait. At 4518 N. Lincoln Ave., the excellent Bistro Campagne has been serving fine organic French cuisine since 2002. Up the street a bit, Le Café, at 4655 N. Lincoln Ave., is now serving French pastries, crepes and sandwiches to the denizens of Ravenswood who pine for la vie parisienne.
Chez Simo is open for dinner from 5:00 to 9:00 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, and from 5:00 to 10:00 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Lunches are available for groups, with prices starting at $15. The restaurant is open on Sunday and Monday for large private parties only (minimum of 25 people). Phone: (773) 334-7466 (SIMO). Web site: chezsimobistro.com.
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