Chicago’s gentrified Lincoln Square broadens its culinary horizons

Chicago’s gentrified Lincoln Square broadens its culinary horizons

Carolyn Walkup

CHICAGO — Independent restaurants located on a four-block stretch of Lincoln Avenue in the North Side’s Lincoln Square neighborhood here are serving a world of tastes to a growing clientele.

A stable, quiet area that didn’t attract much attention until a few years ago, Lincoln Square has become a dining destination as new residents and visitors discover its wealth of cuisine. Gentrification is taking place, but not to the point of pushing out older residents or businesses that give the area its vintage character.

Long-established restaurants, including Chicago Brauhaus, Cafe Selmarie and La Bocca della Verita, co-exist with such brand-new entities as Tank, an ultramodern sushi bar; Charlie’s on Leavitt, a chef-owned contemporary-American spot; and Bad Dog Tavern, a pub and American bistro.

The neighborhood felt right to Susan Socher and her three partners, including her chef-brother Charlie, for their Charlie’s on Leavitt, located just off Lincoln Avenue. The area had the diverse demographics they sought, plus they could afford to buy their building.

“Charlie wanted a place where people could come and feel comfortable,” Socher said. The simply designed storefront evokes the 1950s, but the food is contemporary American. This is the second restaurant for the partners, who also own Card Matou, a French bistro, several miles away in Bucktown.

Other newcomers include G.P. Franklin’s, featuring comfort food, a soda fountain and a general store; Andalucia, a tapas bar; and several more places still under construction. Starbucks is the only chain food-and-beverage business on the four-block stretch.

“I am happy with all of our neighbors and the camaraderie. The more energy, the better for all of us,” said Michael Altenberg, chef and co-owner of Bistro Campagne, a 2-year-old, European-style bistro. “There’s a mix, sushi, Irish, Italian, German, of course, and Thai–there’s a real mix,” he explained.

“It’s a real pedestrian-friendly neighborhood, with the Old Town School of Folk Music and the Davis, an old movie theater,” Altenberg said. “It’s one of Chicago’s prize neighborhoods, with an Old World ambiance.”

Since relocating to a 1931 landmark building in Lincoln Square a few years ago, the Old Town School has brought to the neighborhood for lessons and concerts many visitors who also patronize the restaurants Other destinations include the Lill Street Studio pottery school, Degerberg Academy of Martial Arts and Fitness, two German meat markets and Merz Apothecary, a homeopathic drugstore with roots going back to the late 1800s.

“There’s a lot of activity in this neighborhood,” said Jeanne Uzdawinis, partner in Cafe Selmarie. “You have to have the other things going on to make the restaurants happen. If you get overly weighted with restaurants, it’s not so good.”

She and partner Birgit Kobayashi, who opened their cafe and bakery 21 years ago, said they are pleased with the way their business and the neighborhood have evolved, in spite of such challenges as ever-rising operating costs.

“We both live right down the street–that was an ingredient in how we wanted to associate our business–we wanted to put it in our neighborhood,” Kobayashi noted.

They decided to serve breakfast, lunch and dinner because they felt the neighborhood needed all three dayparts. It took awhile for weekday breakfast to catch on, but the influx of new residents has made it worthwhile, Kobayashi said.

Especially well-known for its European-style bakery case as well as its outdoor cafe facing a plaza, Cafe Selmarie has helped to anchor the Lincoln Avenue business corridor and provide a meeting place for neighborhood residents. Children of longtime customers now come in to apply for jobs. The cafe also showcases art and photography from local artists and provides space for children’s birthday parties.

Although many people have approached the partners with offers of additional locations around town, they have opted to focus on their single store.

“Our conclusion was that people like to see the owner,” Kobayashi said. “We’re not interested in growing for the sake of growing or making more money. We always just wanted to make things better and fill a need.”

COPYRIGHT 2004 Reproduced with permission of the copyright holder. Further reproduction or distribution is prohibited without permission.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group