Rarely does a new restaurant inspire a change to my internal lexicon, but Apero might just do it. The name of the new wine bar in North Center means “pre drink,” and it came from managing partner and wine director Robert Cervantes’s friends in France, who would say (in French) something like “Come over for an apero at five.” Sometimes that would mean just having a drink, and sometimes it would mean everyone stayed for dinner. This concept inspired the restaurant, which is focused on a large wine by the glass list, but also a seasonally-inspired culinary program by chef Dylan Heath.

Cervantes’s life story includes enough adventures to fill a book, let alone a short column. He speaks Mandarin and French, went to school in Montreal, opened a restaurant in Singapore, taught yoga in Hong Kong and Belgium, and did what he laughingly calls his “eat pray love” tour for six months in India. Despite all this travel, he’s a native Chicagoan (he grew up a stone’s throw from Apero) and his first culinary job was at Bistro Campagne in Lincoln Square. “The chef got really excited that I was able to pronounce the wine labels that no one else was able to, and that’s how I got into wine.” He also worked at L20 and Nomi before he began his travels.

Fast forward a few years — Cervantes ended up back in Chicago after his family bought a building in the neighborhood where he grew up. He’d haunted wine bars all over the world, but the type of place he was looking for didn’t exist in Chicago. “There is no wine bar in this neighborhood — nowhere people can get a glass of wine and feel like they might be in a different country,” says Cervantes. “I want to create an experience where people can come in and not be in their neighborhood anymore; they get to be transported.”

Apero is not a wine snob’s place; it’s meant to be an opportunity for people to try new wines. If you’re intimidated by the leather-bound tomes filled with bottles that you can’t afford at some high-end restaurants, don’t worry — Cervantes isn’t doing a large wine by the bottle program (aside from a few private selections). Everything is by the glass and designed for sampling. That doesn’t mean wine geeks won’t also find some gems; Cervantes wants to be the city’s number one destination for orange wine, and he’s focused on biodynamic and natural wines. The wine menu will constantly change, both to fit the season and because the wines are made in small batches by small producers.

The food, by Heath, is designed to showcase the wine. Heath, who has done stints at Café Marie-Jeanne, The Betty, and Celeste, is interested in cooking seasonally and crafting dishes that show off the best of what’s growing in the fields. He’s not militant about it (“I’m not going to kill myself over never using lemons or anything like that”) but he wants to keep it casual and approachable, which is perfect for a neighborhood wine bar. Try a seared asparagus grenobloise with lardons, or a salad of pear, arugula, and fennel. Don’t skip Heath’s bread; like many of us, his bread nerdery intensified during lockdown, and all of Apero’s breads are made in house.

Both Cervantes and Heath have been blown away by the neighborhood’s response — Apero has been open two weeks and they already have regulars. “There were several days last week where everyone in the place was from a block away and all knew each other,” laughs Heath. For Cervantes this means his plan is working; to offer something a little bit different, and a little bit special, without mimicking another cuisine. “I’m not trying to be a French place, I’m trying to be a Chicago place. We are a young city that can learn a lot.”