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Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

Amelia Levin scours the city for the best and favorite community-based restuarants


In heavily urban areas, diners look to neighborhood restaurants for an intimate experience with restaurant staff and others from their surrounding community
    What do you think of when you hear the term “neighborhood restaurant?” Does it conjure up images of a cozy, warm-colored room with smells of comfort food wafting through the space? Is it somewhere you know you can talk to the chef, owner and other restaurant folks wandering throughout the dining room? Is it that place where, as in “Cheers,” everyone seems to know your name?
    For Dan Sachs, Bin 36 restaurateur and owner of Bin Wine Café (1559 N. Milwaukee St., 773-486-2233), the idea of a neighborhood restaurant means all these things and more. 
    “I think a lot of people want neighborhood restaurants to be extensions of their own dining room,” Sachs says. “You want to feel like you have an attachment to the people there and they to you.” 
    While Chicago certainly has a place on the culinary map (some might say the top two or three places), racking in nine James Beard Award nominations this year and chosen by Bravo! as the host for this year’s Top Chef series, the Windy City still capitalizes on its smaller, unique eateries, characterized not just by their chefs and menus, but also by the neighborhood in which they reside and the people they serve. 
    The biggest factor in creating that neighborhood-y environment is scale, Sachs believes. “The size of the space dictates so much of what you can do,” he says. “In a smaller space, the restaurant staff can have a much more intimate relationship with the guests.” 
    Larger, downtown restaurants tend to have higher staff turnover rates and an overall faster pace, which can polarize guests and position the restaurant as more of a destination and one-time experience than a casual place to connect with others. 
    “Typically regulars at downtown restaurants have one server they particularly like, or a bartender they know, and they come in asking for that particular person,” Sachs says. “At a neighborhood restaurant, where at the most maybe 100 to 150 people walk in on any given night, it’s easier to get to know the host, the bartender and more than one server. That kind of different experience really seems to resonate with the diner.” 
    At Bin Wine Café, light-colored woods, soft lighting and paintings by local artists lining the walls create a warm and welcoming environment, enhanced only by the bar at the front of the room, acting as a focal meeting point, and the exposed kitchen at the back of the restaurant, where diners can watch their meals being prepared.
    Two- and four-top tables pushed close, but not too close together at the front of the room nestle up to a floor-to-ceiling, front window overlooking bustling Milwaukee Avenue. Servers are known to be more than friendly here—many of them are friends of the regular diners. “Our staff has been here a long time, many since we opened,” Sachs says. “We look for people who understand our approach to wine and food, but who are also comfortable talking to guests and who the guests want to talk to.”
    At Socca in Lakeview (3301 N. Clark St., 773-248-1155), the same friendly atmosphere pervades. “Some of our regular guests have invited staff to come over to their homes for dinner,” says Roger Herring, chef and owner. “Last Sunday a diner had six or seven of us over for cocktails and appetizers, and it was really nice.” 
    In the most densely populated neighborhood in Chicago, this kinship-like nature within a restaurant may seem like a phenomenon at best. With so many places to eat in just a few square miles, diners still quickly find their favorites and remain loyal to them. “Even in the dead of winter when it’s cold and snowy, we stay fairly busy with our regular customers,” Herring says. “I think people see us as an after-work or casual weekend dinner place, where they can take their suit jackets and ties off, compared to downtown restaurants that really feed off tourism and power lunches and dinners. It’s easier for people to relax here and not necessarily feel like they have to conduct business or close deals.”
    Price point is also important in differentiating neighborhood eateries from downtown, big-ticket restaurants. “The prices at a neighborhood restaurant have to be more affordable so it feels like an everyday experience and not such a big commitment to go out,” Sachs says. “We offer lots of specials during the week to encourage people to come in the restaurant when they would otherwise stay home or order in. We want to make it cheaper in some cases to just come in the restaurant.” Bin Wine Café also has a retail element that makes it convenient for locals to pick up wines with their dinner. 
    The only drawback, or challenge behind running a neighborhood restaurant, Sachs says is existing without the proximity to the tourism and business hub downtown. “If you don’t stay busy, or you have an off-month, it can really hurt your operation,” he says. “So there’s not a lot of room for error.”
    Hence the reason Sachs chose Wicker Park to open up shop. “It’s a well-established area, and the culture of going out is very strong there.” The plan worked: Bin Wine Café has a regular flow of customers and is often busy. 
    The other challenge with running a neighborhood restaurant is keeping the menu new and fresh to make it interesting for the regulars who come in. “People love the hangar steak with fries and the tempura green beans and the lamb meatball appetizer, so we always keep those on the menu,” says Sachs. But Chef de Cuisine Adam Dittmer will change up parts of other dishes to keep things interesting, like offering the roasted chicken year round, but incorporating new ingredients as they change seasonally. One section of the menu is “up for grabs,” Sachs says, where Dittmer plays with organic and local foods. 
    In the summers, Dittmer walks over to the Wicker Park farmer’s market to pick up fresh produce for the week. “We try to take that advantage to support local farmers and buy as much as we can,” Sachs says. “It’s a very romantic notion that the chef can go over to the market and pick up fresh tomatoes for a salad that night, and our diners really appreciate that.”
    Herring develops his menus in a similar way, leaving the main part of the dish on the menu that customers really enjoy, like the braised beef short ribs, but changing up the accompaniments each season. “In the summer, I’ll serve the short ribs with a salad and balsamic vinegar, and in the winter, I might serve it with a parsnip puree and root vegetables to keep it seasonal,” Herring says. At one point, Herring thought about taking off the short ribs in the summer because they generally make for a heavier dish, but his regular customers liked it so much he left them on. 
    “It’s nice to be able to talk to people and talk about the food and get to know what people like and don’t like,” Herring says. “Or maybe I’ll learn there’s something wrong with the menu that I didn’t recognize.” 
    The customers, then, can be the ones to characterize the environment of the neighborhood restaurants, not necessarily the other way around. Here are some other neighborhoods where the clientele are like extensions of the restaurant itself:
La Tache
1475 W. Balmoral Ave., 773-334-7168
    This intimate and charming French bistro just off Clark Street draws a regular crowd from the surrounding neighborhood for seasonal dishes and a French-inspired brunch on weekends. 
4343 N. Lincoln Ave., 773-477-7144
    The name of this cozy eatery comes from the large chalkboard menus in the dining room listing dishes that change nightly with Chef Gilbert Langlois’ seasonal inspirations like wild Alaskan halibut with asparagus, spring ramps and morel mushrooms. Regulars rave about the fried, bone-in chicken breast with collard greens.
1729 N. Halsted St., 312-337-6070
    This clean and casual yet sophisticated mainstay in Lincoln Park has a core diner base, coming in for Chef Giuseppe Tentori’s dishes that feature many local ingredients and interesting flavor combinations like crispy Iowa pork belly with grilled bok choy, buckwheat soba noodles and a tamarind sauce. The dessert menu shines just as great with Pastry Chef Elizabeth Dahl at the helm. At press time, BOKA owners Rob Katz and Kevin Boehm were in the final stages of opening their new concept Perennial in the former Bar Louie Space at Lincoln and Clark, attached to the new boutiquey Park View hotel. Perennial promises to be another casual restaurant with a neighborhood feel, especially in the summer when the breezy, 60-seat patio opens up overlooking the park and Green City Market, where Tentori says he plans to shop for produce.

3868 N. Lincoln Ave., 773-327-3868
    The epitome of neighborhood restaurants, Sola’s small space, but wide open dining room with light wood floors, soft lighting and a bopping bar creates a lively environment where Chef Carol Wallack serves up contemporary American dishes with Hawaiian, Asian and fusion influences, often changing up the menu to incorporate seasonal and local ingredients, but she says she’s kept a number of dishes on the menu just to please the regulars who love them. The restaurant also has an extensive carryout option for those looking to stay home.
Topo Gigio
1516 N. Wells St., 312-266-9355
    Old Town wouldn’t be Old Town without this constantly buzzing Italian mainstay that sits smack in the center of Wells Street, and during the summertime opens up on the sidewalk for people- watching heaven. Dishes are classic Italian, like veal parmesan and homemade pastas, but consistently good, and it’s evident people know that because the dining room’s always packed. Nightly specials introduce creative dishes, many seafood-based. 

1851 W. Addison St., 773-248-2777
    A model supporter of local businesses, Terragusto brings in sausage from down the street at Paulina Market and produce from the farmer’s market, coupled with homemade pasta. Sage walls, lots of light wood and an intimate two-seat table with chairs facing the window to Addison Street make for a comfortable, relaxed feel. The menu is modeled after the traditional Italian method of service: antipasti, followed by first courses and a shared meat or fish entrée. Heads up: it’s BYOB.
West Town Tavern
1329 W. Chicago Ave., 312-666-6175
    This casual but contemporary restaurant’s inconspicuous storefront makes it hard to miss, but the dining room is constantly full with neighborhood folks, regulars and those from beyond West Town looking to feast on Chef Susan Goss’ creations that are comfort food-esque, but never overly rich or heavy, paired with a well-thought out wine list. Favorites include the Ownesboro (Kentucky)-style smoked lamb shoulder with a barbecue black sauce and the fresh fish of the day.

Published: June 24, 2008
Issue: Summer 2008 Urban Living