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A spicy mezcal drink
Yes, there’s a spicy mezcal drink at Lemon.
Lemon/Ryan Beshel

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West Town’s New Fancy Cocktail Bar Aims to Put Its Workers First

Lemon won’t judge if a customer wants an espresso martini, mojito, or glass of wine

Ashok Selvam is the editor of Eater Chicago and a native Chicagoan armed with more than two decades of award-winning journalism. Now covering the world of restaurants and food, his nut graphs are super nutty.

Chicago’s bar scene remains one of the country’s most formidable, but even the most ardent supporter would have to admit that the pandemic sapped a little bit of the pizzaz.

For Chicago bartender Zak McMahon, the decline started even before COVID became part of the world’s lexicon. Sure, in recent years there have been a handful of success stories around Chicago, but they came from hospitality groups. The independent owner-operator bar had become a unicorn.

This week, McMahon and his merry band of friends hope to revitalize that genre. Lemon debuts at the northwest corner of Grand and Ashland. The bar officially debuts on Thursday at 1600 W. Grand Avenue.

It’s a cocktail bar that will host the occasional drag, comedy, dance, or cabaret show. McMahon hopes the space comes off without pretension. There is no thick menu of cocktails — McMahon says they’ll have a menu above the board with specials with 12 drinks listed at once. In total, Lemon’s library consists of about 34 drinks. That doesn’t count classic drinks like an Old Fashioned; they didn’t want to waste menu space on Chicago’s most popular cocktail. Folks who want an Old Fashioned don’t need to see it on a menu.

Expresso Yourself (aged brandy, blended rum, espresso liqueur, Metric cold brew, Amaro, demerara syrup, Fernet, salt)
A drink in a cooper coup with rosemary.
Seasonal Mule (vodka or gin, ginger beer, cranberry syrup, lime juice, torched rosemary).

Lemon wants customers to come in and order whatever they want without fear that they’ll be judged. They’ve whipped up a special espresso martini, joyfully called “Expresso Yourself.” It’s made with a new cold-brew concentrate from Metric Coffee and Amaro. For folks who like spicy mezcal drinks, the “Something Spicy With Mezcal” is exactly as advertised: “We’re taking the smoke and mirrors out of it,” says McMahon.

There’s a tight food menu with snacks. But beyond classic beverages — seasonals, trendy drinks, non-alcoholic beverages, beer, and wine — customers will also notice something else on the menu. The prices aren’t typical full dollar amounts; cents proudly return. McMahon says it was a way they could bake-in the cost of health care benefits without resorting to service fees. That additional cost will also pay for artists and bands, as well as higher than average salaries. For example, hosts will make $20 per hour. This meshes with what One Fair Wage, the national group that pushed Chicago to eliminate the tipped minimum wage, wants from restaurants and bars (even though each restaurant and bar operates differently). McMahon points out that Lemon’s crew was already on this path even before One Fair Wage made its presence known in Chicago in 2023.

A drink a coupe.
“Something Spicy With Mezcal”

McMahon says the team didn’t want to end up on a Reddit list of restaurants to avoid that use service fees. There’s also the case of customers who don’t want to pay the fee. Legally, customers can ask for the fee to be removed: “It’s not negotiable, this is what we’re charging for a drink,” McMahon says.”If you don’t want to pay it, leave.”

There’s an indie spirit that flows from the space and its team — GM Jeremy Owen Barrett (GreenRiver Annex), Director of Operations Seth Blumenthal, and creative director Mason McIntire. McMahon and McInteier worked together at Billy Sunday, the influential Logan Square cocktail bar. Lemon isn’t the Aviary or Billy Sunday. They make their own drink syrups and the spicy mezcal is infused with chiles, but there’s a genuine realization to reduce back-of-house work. Not everything needs to be produced in-house. For example, Lemon’s brass found a bitter manufacturer they trust. So instead of spending the time they don’t necessarily have on making bitters, the thinking is they can spend that time on creating a better environment for customers and workers alike. For the customer, a happier staff leads to a better time.

They’ve spruced up the space where Grand Bar and Betty’s Blue Star Lounge stood. The bar seats 20, but they’ll try to only seat 18, keeping two reserved in case friends or any VIPs show up. Centering industry members is something they’ve worked on, as McMahon describes a unique goal: to open a bar that puts its employees first.

Lemon will also have a smattering of food.

The general public may have caught a glimpse of how hard restaurant staff works while watching The Bear with employees crouched down on buckets while eating their dinners. It might sound like a small thing, but Lemon wants to make sure that never happens and they’ll make sure workers have actual seats while on break. Unlike those prior establishments that inhabited the space, Lemon lacks a late-night license: “We all don’t want to be out that late,” McMahon says.

Lemon, 1600 W. Grand Avenue, opening Thursday, December 21.

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