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It’s been a long road to Mariscos San Pedro, the new restaurant that just opened in the Pilsen music venue Thalia Hall. Chef Oliver Poilevey learned the restaurant business from his parents, Jean-Claude and Susanne Poilevey, who, before they died in 2016 and 2019, respectively, were well-regarded members of Chicago’s dining scene.

Manuel Martinez/WBEZ

A restaurant in a rock hall? Oliver Poilevey is just warming up

Mariscos San Pedro is the flashy newcomer opening up in Thalia Hall. But the chef behind it is a second generation Chicago food talent with a flair for experimentation.

Oliver Poilevey just wants to cook. The Chicago chef’s straightforward goal has gotten slightly more complicated since he rather quickly became a restaurateur with a swelling mini-restaurant empire.

Said empire includes 2023 James Beard Foundation Awards Best New Restaurant finalist Obelix and longtime Bucktown bistro Le Bouchon (both of which he co-owns with brother Nicolas Poilevey), and Taqueria Chingón (which he owns with chef/partner Marcos Ascensio). On Friday, three became four when Oliver opened Mariscos San Pedro in Pilsen alongside chef/partners Ascensio and Antonio Incandela and pastry chef/partner Alex Martinez.

Thalia Hall at dusk

The new Mexican-inspired seafood restaurant Mariscos San Pedro overlooks 18th Street in the iconic Pilsen structure that also houses Thalia Hall, Tack Room bar and the subterranean Punch House, all owned by hospitality group 16” on Center.

K’von Jackson for WBEZ

With their newest venture — and an ever-growing list of responsibilities on Oliver’s plate — he believes his best dishes are still ahead of him.

“I still wanna cook all the time; I want to have dishes I create,” Oliver said. “I’m 35 right now, so for a chef that’s kinda prime, where you can really match your mental with your physical.”

It’s been a long road to here, since Oliver and his younger brother Nicolas, 32, took up the ownership torch of Le Bouchon and La Sardine from their parents, Jean-Claude and Susanne Poilevey, who died in 2016 and 2019, respectively. When the pandemic struck early in 2020, it unleashed an “extinction event for restaurants” — as the brothers called it on social media — that forced the Poileveys to close the then-22-year-old La Sardine in August 2020.

But from such overwhelming loss came a new chapter, new partnerships and a more self-assured identity for this generation of, yes, restaurateurs.

Mariscos’ many faces

In early May I met with Oliver, Ascensio and Incandela (also executive pastry chef at Obelix), amid much hammering and drilling at Mariscos San Pedro’s future home, formerly Dusek’s. The Mexican-inspired seafood restaurant overlooks 18th Street in the iconic Pilsen structure that also houses Thalia Hall, Tack Room bar and subterranean Punch House — all owned by hospitality group 16” on Center.

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The culinary talents behind the new Mariscos San Pedro include (from left) chef-partners Oliver Poilevey, Marcos Ascencio and Antonio Incandela.

Manuel Martinez/WBEZ

The brick walls had been whitewashed. Resident chalk artist Anna-Michal Paul had yet to compose a primary-colored mural in the dining room or chalk illustration of an octopus holding a michelada near the entrance. All the same, it already felt like a warm, salty breeze had swept through this dark and masculine haunt, unfurling across a spacious bar/lounge and dining room.

These days, minimalist, light-wood furniture and grayscale chevron tile complement handmade light fixtures and a decorative wood-fiber lattice piece obscuring a full wall and part of the ceiling in the dining room. Glass mezcal decanters hang decoratively above the long bar in the lounge — and dispense mezcal, natch. In the dining room, a glowing, painted-brick hearth crackles with live fire — roasting curling octopus tentacles, head-on prawns, whole turbot and plantains.

Mariscos San Pedro interior

"“Mariscos are always a party,” says Ascensio, and the restaurant’s interior was designed to match.

Courtesy of Secco Studio

“One big thing for us here is we want to offer a bunch of different types of experiences,” Oliver said. That means weeknight fish tacos and a beer for $20, hot and cold seafood towers for a crowd, and wood-fired tasting menus on weekends. But even the fancy fare isn’t fussy: “It’s not a lot of knife-and-fork food here.”

It’s fun food with invigorating complexity: Tajin-dabbed raw oysters topped with michelada granita go down far too easily; a bacon-wrapped octopus tentacle “Sonoran dog,” nestled in a buttered brioche bun with pico and nutty salsa macha, smacks of an instant hit. Washed down with a quenching, quietly funky mezcal margarita — it’s the kind of festive meal to amp you up before seeing a beloved band take the stage upstairs. As Ascensio put it, “Mariscos are always a party.”

A Mexican-American who grew up down the street in Little Village, Ascensio knows well the many faces of the mariscos joint: the one with the coolest vibe, the best micheladas, the most bracing ceviche. He’s confident San Pedro will be all at once — and tell a deeply personal story from a group of second-generation chefs in their prime. “But as far as pressure, I’m definitely — ” he sighed then laughed. “Yeah, I’m feeling it now.”

A familial knack for neighborhood restaurants

Despite that Oliver is juggling so many weighty obligations (he also cooks, develops menus and mentors at Obelix and pops in often at Bouchon), there’s a lightness to the oldest Poilevey brother. It was evident the moment he, Acensio and Incandela started lavishing me with sample dishes sitting in a darkened Tack Room.

They jokingly confessed an almost smug satisfaction with their ahi tuna tostada, a gutturally crunchy celebration of lush, raw tuna with salsa macha, sticky soy-ginger glaze, garlic aioli, wild fennel and zesty mandarinquat. A quesabirria-style gobernador shrimp taco with salsa negra, chimichurri and avocado mousse was hot, spicy, sweet and a little greasy: “a good drinking taco,” Oliver said. Goat ice cream, goat caramel and a smear of cassis jam lent tangy sweetness to a sturdy and delicious choco taco. It’s the food they like to eat, Ascensio told me: “balanced, always with texture, always with some acidity.”

MSP sign credit Secco Studio.jpg

The Poilevey brothers have a knack for building neighborhood restaurants, which they inherited from their parents.

Courtesy of Secco Studio

It’s also decidedly unshackled from tradition. When describing the tostadas they’ve dreamed up, Oliver drew comparisons to sushi rolls. He likened San Pedro’s in-house “Masa y Más” program to Italian restaurants’ pasta programs, in that they’ll pair different forms of nixtamalized corn with seasonal vegetables. Think mushroom tetelas with stretchy raclette cheese and salsa de molcajete. There will even be fish offal here — a la fish tripe tacos and fish liver mousse tostadas.

But food nerdery aside, “Like Bouchon, I want this to be a neighborhood place first,” Oliver added.

The Poileveys have a knack for building neighborhood restaurants, which they inherited from their parents, the French-born chef Jean-Claude and his wife, Susanne Poilevey. The couple began supplying Bucktown with steak frites and garlicky escargots in 1993 when they opened Lyonnaise bistro Le Bouchon. Five years later they brought French comfort food to the West Loop with the casual, airy La Sardine. Across the decades, both restaurants developed loyal customer followings and attracted career staff, including Waldo Gallegos, who started when Bouchon opened and is now its longtime executive chef (supported by chef de cuisine Henry Zimmerman and sous chefs Leti Rodriquez and Zach Gordon).

2-11 Frost Le Bouchon 1

Jean-Claude Poilevey stands inside Le Bouchon in February of 1999. Two of Poilevey’s sons entered the restaurant business and have built upon what they learned in their parents’ kitchens.

Jim Frost / Chicago Sun-Times file photo

Oliver, Nicolas and their brother Henri, 29, now an artist, grew up in the restaurants. Oliver started washing dishes at La Sardine when he was 13. He attended Washburne Culinary Institute, but his love of cooking was ignited when he went to work at restaurants in France. He spent a few years traveling and working in other restaurants before returning to the line at Bouchon. There, he started to push for change — like incorporating seasonal preparations and Asian ingredients — and his father, a French traditionalist, pushed back.

“Oliver is a very creative guy,” Nicolas Poilevey, by then wine director at Bouchon and Sardine, told me. “We have Bouchon, which you can never really change. But he is constantly trying to find a new vessel for his creative output.”

With Jean-Claude’s untimely death in a car accident on the Eisenhower Expressway late in 2016, followed by Susanne’s decline and death due to cancer three years later, the reins were forced into Oliver’s and Nicolas’s hands fairly suddenly. As the brothers kept Bouchon afloat amid COVID-19 with to-go dinners and made the heartrending choice to close Sardine, Oliver started plotting a place of his own, inspired by trips to Mexico City.

Coming into their own

Oliver and Ascensio met through mutual friends; Ascensio — an industry vet of NoMi, Bar Lupo (closed) and the Ivy Room at Tree Studios, and former culinary instructor at Benito Juarez Academy in Pilsen — often dined at Bouchon on his off days. The two started hanging out, throwing backyard potlucks at Ascensio’s house with fellow chefs. Soon enough, Oliver started pestering Ascensio about opening a creative taco joint.

“I was always in his ear about it,” he said.

“Like, ‘Dude, we gotta do this!’ ” interjected Ascensio, grinning broadly. He relented; they opened the counter-service Chingón in December 2020 in a little white building on Western Avenue in West Bucktown. The move proved savvy as the pandemic’s grip remained tight, and restaurant-starved Chicagoans lined up down the block for inventive duck carnitas tacos and raclette quesadillas.

Soon thereafter, the Poilevey brothers debuted a place of their own too: Fine-dining French(ish) Obelix opened in River North in 2022, in the former home of Entente. The Poileveys hired Nathan Kim (Jeong), a classically trained chef with worldly sensibilities as chef de cuisine, and some familiar faces from Sardine came onboard to fill the front of the house and kitchen.

Self-dubbed “wine guy” Nicolas leaned on the years of wine-buying relationships he’d built at Bouchon and Sardine (backed by the 40 his dad clocked before him) to source some of France’s best wines, priced “more like you’d find in Paris.” They also created an ambitious sweet and savory pastry program, recruiting Spiaggia veteran Incandela and putting him through his paces.

“I loved their approach to hospitality and food, and we connected real fast,” Incandela said.

Obelix feels both neighborhoody and raucously upscale — where foie gras features in a $29 taco that tastes like posh PB&J; where Kim’s take on the French dish tête du cochon (pig’s head) might come with two kinds of Korean kimchi and Korean plum sauce; where it’s almost impossible not to splurge.

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Members of the Obelix team pose on the red carpet for the James Beard Awards at the Chicago Lyric Opera House on June 5, 2023.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

The brothers have settled into a rhythm, supporting each other while leaning into their respective concepts.

“It’s really nice, Oliver and I having our own restaurants, where we’re having confidence in the product we put out,” Nicolas said, echoing Oliver’s dedication to being a local favorite. “The key when we opened the restaurant was we opened it for that specific neighborhood. What we’ve noticed over these two years is the same following my parents had at Bouchon and Sardine followed us here. There’s a lot of familiar faces, hugging hi and goodbye.”

Nicolas, for one, is content with two restaurants — being there shaking hands, and finding a little work-life balance. “Oliver’s more energetic,” he said.

“Maybe I’ll get there one day, where I just enjoy the feeling of being content,” Oliver said, “but I don’t think I’m there yet.”

Mariscos San Pedro dishes

Opening dishes at Mariscos San Pedro include (from left) sardine tostada with pistachio mole, olives and golden raisins; oysters with michelada granita, tajín and avocado; and Hokkaido scallop aguachile with jamaica, pineapple and serrano.

Maggie Hennessy for WBEZ

It’s no wonder then, that when the call came from 16” on Center partner Bruce Finkelman about partnering on a restaurant in a music hall, Oliver jumped at the chance to stretch creatively with Ascensio, this time on a mariscos restaurant they knew Pilsen needed.

Incandela, who’d been assisting on Chingón’s taco omakase menus, got his unofficial San Pedro tryout during the marathon tasting Ascensio and Oliver hosted for Finkelman and company. Incandela whipped up his already Chingón-famous choco taco, along with a French-Mexican fusion of a Basque cake with coconut ice cream and pineapple mango compote.

“After that point, they asked if I wanted to come along with them,” Incandela said. He’s excited to dive into Mexican pastry, having built a strong foundation in European desserts. “To be able to explore classical Mexican pastry, which I feel like maybe hasn’t been represented enough, and find ways of pushing it and making it new in my own way, it’s exciting to me.”

Mariscos San Pedro

For a restaurant launched by a second-generation chef, Mariscos San Pedro is decidedly unshackled from tradition.

Courtesy by Secco Studio

Chefs Andrew Celestino, Emily Abrams, and pastry sous chefs Sarah Perrone and Reema Patel round out the opening kitchen team. On most nights, you’ll see Ascensio, Oliver and Incandela rolling out masa, shucking oysters and feeding the hearth, too — in no small part because of the trust they have in the teams they’ve built across Chingón, Obelix and Bouchon.

“We’re all very motivated; we all want to do something that’s great and unique, that’s going to be a good business for us to live off of, that’s going to be fun,” Oliver said.

Yet as excited as they are to unleash their creativity and live-fire theater on Pilsen, they realize this partnership and venture is bigger than them as they in turn shepherd the next generation of kitchen creatives.

“We’re also in a place where we’re teaching a lot, working with young cooks, trying to make leaders,” Oliver said. “I’m always in the service of whoever is working for us; they’re not just here to produce.”

This commitment to buoying the team rather than servicing one or two culinary egos is something else he learned from his father, whose career hallmark wasn’t just restaurants with staying power, but loyal staff. “I take it very seriously.”


Maggie Hennessy is a Chicago-based food and drink writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Bon Appetit and Food & Wine. Follow her on Instagram.

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