Soon-to-open Horse Thief Hollow will offer South Side some cool brews

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Neil Byers is the owner of Horse Thief Hollow, a Western Avenue brew pub in Chicago's Beverly community. The business is slated to open in December. | Larry Ruehl~Sun-Times Media

There's an Irish twinkle in 29-year-old Neil Byers' eye when he speaks about his entrepreneurial spirit. Two years ago, he was just scraping by, and struggling to find his niche.

Now he's readying to open a family-friendly restaurant and brewery in Chicago's Beverly neighborhood focusing on creative comfort food, craft beer, and a cozy ambiance that invites guests to linger amid warm woodwork, historical touches and furnishings that embrace its South Side roots.

Although the process has been daunting at times, his heart - and his head - lead the way.

A Beverly native, Mount Carmel grad and classically trained chef, Byers landed at 3-star Slightly North of Broad, in Charleston, S.C., post-culinary school, where he had his hands in practically everything - from baking to prep to cooking "coastalina" cuisine. He then dabbled for a bit at two Chicago-area restaurants and in food sales, until he decided to reassess what exactly it was he wanted to do with his life.

"One day [while in sales] I was sorting through seafood to make sure customers received the best quality, and it dawned on me, no one cared what I was doing ... but me. I knew then I had to stay true to my nature and do my own thing," Byers said.

A rising restaurateur

Byers tossed several ideas around - including a fish market in Hyde Park and a barbecue joint in Beverly - but nothing felt quite right - until he stepped inside the available 5,900-square-foot space at 104th and Western Avenue, and saw great potential. Almost immediately, he had a vision in mind for the concept behind his culinary endeavor.

While perusing a friend's coffee table book, he came across the account of 19th century thieves hiding horses from Missouri in Beverly to later sell downtown. The mystique and lore behind the tale appealed to Byers' love of history. Hence, Horse Thief Hollow was born.

With five years of craft brewing experience under his belt including time spent at Saugatuck Brewing Company in Michigan, Byers thought if he could fuse the idea of specially made beer and simple, well-prepared dishes with indigenous Midwestern ingredients, he'd hit a regional home run.

Once he made the commitment, Byers knew demolition would be time-consuming and expensive. Starting the first week of June, he filled 13, 30-yard trash containers quickly. The existing interior was completely gutted, and some of the materials, like the second story wood flooring, was repurposed in other ways, all in the spirit of sustainability. The ceiling is now exposed, walls have been re-bricked, cabinets from the upstairs are being converted to a front desk, and reclaimed butcher block has been fashioned into tabletops.

The doorway itself is a focal point.

"My fiance's father and his friend salvaged the doors, headed for the trash, from the University of Chicago. Made of solid oak and leaded glass windows, I knew they would fit in well with the restaurant's d├ęcor. The only problem was they didn't meet code requirements."

So Byers worked with a Wisconsin blacksmith to have them framed out and extended to 36 inches. He knew an entryway that generations of students had passed through was worth preserving - and certainly deserving of a new home.

Make it good

Part of what drew Byers back into the kitchen was that he missed the collaboration and creativity. His menu "is influenced by the stuff chefs eat after-hours when the go home for the night." With that in mind, he designed dishes around the idea of straightforward, satisfying edibles - the basics with a twist.

Some items will be stalwarts, like the Springfield, Ill.-famous "Horseshoe," an open-face sandwich of hamburger patties, fries and cheese sauce; fish fries every Friday and succulent barbecue fare. In fact, Byers purchased his esteemed smoker from Lillie's Q, an award-winning place in Wicker Park, led by Chef Charlie McKenna, known for his competition-style barbecue and southern specialties.

Artisan breads, cheeses, sausages, smoked meats, and charcuterie will be made in-house with ingredients produced or sourced from Illinois and the Midwest.

Hopped up

Hops grown on a 22-acre family farm are used in the brewing process, and then repurposed in recipes.

Five traditional beers and one seasonal will be on tap. This is Byers' specialty. He not only engineered the formula for each but concocted their names as well: 18th Rebellion (a "stick-it-in-the-eye" response to Prohibition) similar to Kolsch with a straw-yellow hue; Roscoe Red (homage to his beloved hound) amber ale; Kitchen Sink (everything went into this one) pale ale; Mr. Elwood's (his parents owned one of the first saloons in Beverly) India pale ale; and 773 (a rival to Goose Island's 312 Urban Ale) stout.

"I love taking classic styles of beer and making them their absolute best," Byers said.

On deck will be veteran brewer David Williams, president of the Chicago Homebrew Alchemists of Suds (CHAOS) Brew Club, tasked with experimenting with more unusual and uncommon flavors and varieties.

"Eventually, I'd like to offer an ambassador program where we take people to the farm, harvest the hops, and afford them the hands-on experience of brewing beer," Byers said.

The restaurant and brewery also will highlight Michigan wines and local craft spirits.

"My goal is for our food, beer and customer service to go beyond expectations, so they're worthy of being remembered, and that we're authentic in all that we do. It's a deep-rooted dream for me to be successful in a community that's always been good to me ... life doesn't get much better than that."