When Reed’s Local owner Joel Hill opened his Avondale dive bar three years ago, he had no plans on becoming a restaurateur. But in a couple weeks, Hill—along with his wife Melissa Genova Hill and business partner Heron Rivera—will open a restaurant a five-minute walk from Reed’s inside the former Dragon Lady Lounge at 3188 N. Elston Ave. As the space is located near Belmont and Elston, they’re calling their new restaurant B’el (pronounced “bell”), and it’s a celebration of all things Midwest with items like the stuffed Juicy Lucy burger from Minnesota, fried pork tenderloin sandwich from Indiana, and almond boneless chicken from Michigan. Iowa and Ohio will also get some love.
To better understand the motivation behind B’el is to better understand Avondale. Reed’s is part of a neighborhood restaurant/bar community that includes Honey Butter Fried Chicken, Kuma’s Corner, DMen Tap, Pisolino, and Parachute. Construction teams continue to build apartments and condos and demographics are changing near the Elston/Belmont/California intersection. Even The Beer Temple, the neighborhood’s stellar craft beer store, is getting into the bar business. Hill and Rivera are Avondale residents and want to take advantage. But they don’t want Avondale to become a carbon copy of Logan Square. They want to forge a unique identity for their neighborhood rather than allowing a large restaurant group to impose their will on the community.
“Reed’s has become a community hub, especially for younger people in the area,” Hill said. “There wasn’t a friendly, cool, dive bar in the neighborhood.”
They’ve been working hard to renovate the Dragon Lady space since April. Owner Sue Macias was selling her 30-year-old restaurant and separately courted Hill and Heron as buyers. It made sense for the two—who already knew each other—to pool their resources. They brainstormed and “hometown Midwest” stuck, a way to elevate regional favorites with farm-to-table ingredients and modest prices. Not everything will be fried, Hill reiterates, and they’ll have plenty of vegetarian and vegan options. Rivera and Hill are developing the menu with help from those aforementioned culinary friends in the industry. It’s a unique way of tackling the menu and it’s very in step with Avondale’s community spirit.
“We don’t have the money to hire a big-name chef,” Hill said bluntly.
Rivera, who’s worked in the service industry for decades, bartended at SPiN and Celeste in River North. He’s also worked at Sawtooth and One SixtyBlue in West Loop. While working at the latter—Michael Jordan’s old restaurant—he met sommelier Amy Lewis. He’ll be using her teachings to create cocktails with fresh herbs, syrups made at the bar, and fun spirits. They’re not calling it a “cocktail program,” because they’re not interested in opening a cliched Logan Square cocktail lounge, but they do want to give locals a place for a good drink. Wines aren’t big in the neighborhood, but Rivera will have a few on hand. Hill is already familiar with beer at Reed’s and will bring local crafts to B’el. Hill will be able to bring in a few elusive and pricier beers; $8 pints don’t work at the dive bar.
There’s room for more than 40 inside the restaurant and additional bar seating. The Hills already have experience renovating old spaces as that’s what they did at Reed’s. They’re resurfacing the bar and done major work on the ceiling. They’ll still employ Reed’s same “come as you are” feel, but it’s no dive. Hill won’t be working at B’el—It’s his wife and Rivera’s show. B’el should hopefully in two weeks.
“I’m stoked about it,” Rivera said. “It’s been hell, but it’s been great too; I’m so excited about it.”