I first heard about this place over at the fine local food blog Noodletown back in March. Columbus park is an interesting neighborhood, and I wish I spent more time there. It has characteristics of the River Market and Northeast/Independence Ave. areas that surround it, but physically it feels different–smaller, older, quieter.
Historically Italian and increasingly populated by Vietnamese, Columbus Park is delineated by highways on three sides and the river on the fourth. This makes for some interesting navigation for those unfamiliar with the streets. Like the River Market, the streets are laid out according to the position of the river and not true north/south like downtown proper. That means it’s old, people. It’s home to several good restaurants as well, notably Vietnam Cafe, La Salla’s and Garozzo’s.
As Charles Ferruzza pointed out in his excellent piece about Happy Gillis, this building has a long history of being a comfortable neighborhood meeting and gathering place. The best part about Happy Gillis is that it maintains its connection to the neighborhood. The owners did not swoop in, totally revamp the place and produce food in an environment that appealed to people who don’t live there. That’s also why it’s called a “hangout.”
They left the sign from the original Gillis Sundries market out front, something a lot of restaurant owners wouldn’t do. To boot, the menu has a few homages to the ethnic character of Columbus Park–notably a Bánh mì and a few classic Italian sandwiches.
The food is very good, not spectacular. Sandwiches and salads are freshly prepared with high quality ingredients. I feel fairly confident that all varieties are tasty, probably some a little more than others. It’s a good sign that I have confidence in this place only having visited once. You can just tell they know what they are doing. My Italian sandwich floored me with the pure power of a good salami and some killer homemade giardiniera but I didn’t care for the ciabatta-type bread it came on. An Italian sandwich craves Italian bread, people.
Soups are the bread and butter here. The owners have operated a home soup delivery service for a few years and apparently have done well enough to open the storefront to complement their trade. Personally I can’t get excited about soup, particularly on a 95 degree day which have been all too common lately. My lovely lunching companion did however offer me a taste of a cold corn vichyssoise (wow, did I spell that right on first try?), served with a dollop of fresh pesto. Sounds great, but I found it underwhelming. As my companion pointed out, there’s no reason to puree corn in the middle of summer. Plus, I don’t want to drink my lunch anyway (unless we’re talking alcohol).
The atmosphere here is charming and the service is friendly and attentive. I don’t have anything bad to say about the decor or the vibe or the staff. Really laid-back.
I’m not sure this is a destination-spot, but it’s a really good option for those who live or work nearby. Or stop by after the oppressive crush of the City Market on a Saturday, it’s a good place to decompress.
More about Happy Gillis:
Check out photos of this charming space on flickr.