Spring awakening for business in Lakeview East

Does a flurry of restaurants, spas in this North Side neighborhood indicate a resurgent economy?

May 8, 2012

First, frozen yogurt and cupcakes arrived. Now, here come Vietnamese sandwiches and craft cocktails.

Residents and visitors to Chicago’s Lakeview East are noticing an uptick in the number of restaurants, bars and other new businesses in the neighborhood. Business seems to be booming here, but nobody can tell if the recession’s scars are yet fully healed.

“Great. It must be the season for rehabbing along Broadway …with the old camera shop gut rehab on Stratford place and, of course, Walmart,” said one resident, commenting on a rehab post on neighborhood site Everyblock under the handle Stratford Place.

Papered-up windows have become a common sight on this stretch of the North Side’s Broadway Street. Passersby will attempt to peer in or take a look at building permits affixed to windows, hoping to get a preview of what’s moving into the neighborhood.

It’s not that there are just a handful of businesses; dozens have or will open up in 2012, riding a wave that started last year. On Broadway and Grace, a new bagel shop called Schmear just opened its doors. Not to be left behind for too long, Savon Spa is set to open this year, just south on Halsted and Waveland.

On Cornelia and Halsted, restaurant and lounge Taverna750 opened last summer, as did Elixir Lounge.

Another lounge restaurant, called Bonsai, is set to locate on the same intersection. Bonsai owner Frank Elliott, owns Velvet Rope Lounge in Oak Park.

Going south on Broadway, Vietnamese sandwich shop Bun Mi has opened not one, but two, locations. An animal clinic is slated to go into half of the long-vacant storefront once occupied by a SpinCycle Laundromat, with the other half leased to another business, according to Adam Napp a leasing agent for the property.

There’s also Revolución Steakhouse, which will open across the street from a popular bar and grill: Rocks. 

Revolución Steakhouse owner Antonio Estrada has garnered years of business experience in Lakeview, having run the chain of El Mariachi restaurants on Broadway. Unlike El Mariachi’s current taqueira-like offerings, Revolución aims to offer a full bar and dining experience.

Nearly three dozen businesses opened in Lakeview East in 2011; so far this year, ten more popped up, and several more promise to come, too, according to data from the Lakeview East Chamber of Commerce and the Northalsted Business Alliance. Both groups are nonprofit business organizations.

“A lot of entrepreneurs just walk into our offices looking for a storefront,” said Maureen Martino, the chamber’s executive director.

“I think when you start to have successful businesses, other businesses follow,” she said. “A lot of businesses are birthed here and then they grow.”

Martino’s referring to, among other establishments: restaurant Ann Sather’s, coffee shop Intelligentsia and Pastoral Artisan Cheese, Bread & Wine.

Small business growing pains

Lakeview East’s spurt of growth hasn’t come easy. The chamber and other groups often step in, providing guidance to entrepreneurs who may not be familiar with the neighborhood’s tricky zoning ordinances. Same goes for the ins-and-outs of landing necessary permits to build restaurants or sell liquor.

The North Halsted and Broadway strips in Lakeview East are zoned for commercial and business districts respectively. They are also zoned as what the city terms “pedestrian streets,” which can allow businesses to offer outdoor seating or to modify façades. On the other hand, the regulations can restrict some kinds of businesses, including strip malls or drive-thrus.  

Some of the Lakeview East business owners have said the neighborhood’s retail Renaissance could go further if the city could consolidate or expedite permit approval and payment processes, something Mayor Rahm Emanuel has endorsed. Currently, opening a restaurant, bar or shop requires approval from the city at nearly every step of the way, from business and liquor licenses, to building permits, to permission to swap contractors.

“Elixir would have been opened probably a year earlier if it wasn’t for the city of Chicago,” said Sean Kotwa, manager for Elixir Lounge and board member for the Northalsted Business Alliance. He call the process of opening a small business “a running joke here, that for the ‘city that works,’ nothing seems to work.”

To make matters worse, owners also contend with hefty property taxes. Even when they don’t own the land themselves, landlords pass costs onto businesses.

“It’s been hell,” said Elliott, the owner of Bonsai. When asked how the city could help, he said City Hall should make it easier to contact department managers and avoid other hoops.

So, why, with all this trouble, are seasoned entrepreneurs going through all the trouble? Simply put, they’re convinced there’s money to be made.

Boystown to go upscale

Maybe the sheer number of businesses opening up isn’t as noteworthy as their nature. While to-go food vendors are commonplace in Lakeview East, some of the neighborhood’s newest sit-down restaurants cater to more discerning clientele, offering craft cocktails that have entry prices starting at $14 and entrees running around $20.

Elixir lounge opened last summer, around the same time as neighboring Taverna750. The décor is more cosmopolitan than some of the area’s more established dining venues. With drapery, paneled walls and a full menu of specialty cocktails served by bartenders dressed to impress with ties and vests, the vibe is more reminiscent of Manhattan than a Chicago neighborhood.

“We spared no expense in the design and décor of this place. A lot of people in this industry would probably tell you we’ve spent way too much money,” said Kotwa.

“Ideally, we offer something completely different,” he said. “I was sick and tired of the same old thing, seeing the premium customers disappear into the loop or Andersonville.”

Paul Cannella, owner of Taverna750 and also Scarlet, a gay bar on north Halsted, struck a similar tone: “We try to bring the downtown style and contemporary design at a value price …to get a great experience in the local neighborhood.”

Cannella was quick to add that people are still looking for deals. He pointed out that, unlike Taverna750, Scarlet will charge five bucks for a pitcher of long island tea during “frat night” parties.

Elixir and Taverna750 have tested the upscale waters, while having a solid foothold in the neighborhood with existing businesses. Elixir is actually licensed under Christopher St Ltd, the same firm that operates Hydrate, a neighborhood club. 

Martino said there was a desire to stem the flow of locals with more sophisticated palettes, the kind of patrons how too often flee to the likes of downtown Chicago, the Andersonville neighborhood to the northwest—or even Evanston.

“There is a need to have full-service restaurants,” she said. “Just five years ago, a lot of places were not sit-down places you would make reservations. There really is a taste for every palate.  We’re becoming a destination for cuisines and dining.”

Bonsai owner Elliott, hit the same theme. “There’s so many [bars]on Halsted that’s your normal neighborhood-type bar,” he said. “Some have dancing, there’s a wide variety … not very much that’s different, more of an upscale environment. What about the more mature person that doesn’t want to do that? The ones who want to have a good time, sit with friends or a date?”

“My focus on this place is small-plate type items … unique infusions that blend different types of herbs with the drinks, such as a cucumber/basil martini. There will be 35 different martinis,” he said.

Gary Zickel, an entrepreneur who plans to open a lounge/restaurant on Halsted, said he’ll be chasing the same higher-market. “I think that people are sick of being stagnant and stuck at home. They’re willing to spend money and are comfortable in their jobs,” he said.

Zickel’s working with two other owners to open Wood, a lounge to be located on the corner of Buckingham and Halsted, a space that hosted the former Firefly Bistro and Lounge. One of Zickel’s partners, Theodora Koutsougeras, runs Melrose Diner, a neighborhood staple on Melrose and Broadway. Franco Gianni, the owner of Tank Sushi and Sushi Wabi, is consulting them on Wood’s opening.

“[Our customers] can expect an environment different than anything on Halsted. It is a restaurant and we are a lounge. A loungey, sexy atmosphere where you want to hang out.  We’re not Sidetrack,” he said, referring to a neighboring gay bar. “We’re more of a gathering place. I stress the comfort. We have a wood-burning pizza oven. We’re gonna be serving 3-star flatbreads, pork bellies, all organic. Stuff that’s really interesting.”

Ascendant economy?

What’s not clear is whether the string of openings in Lakeview East is a bellwether for growth across Chicago. According to the city’s Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection, the city issued 9,563 business licenses, just a tad more (9,497) than it did the previous year.

From that vantage, the Lakeview entrepreneurs are taking a risk, sticking their necks out in a city that’s spinning its wheels when it comes to neighborhood retail.

On the other hand, maybe they see potential where others don’t, and they’re willing to invest, and hire, to succeed.

When Elixir opened, Kotwa said the lounge added 10 employees. Zickel plans to hire more than 20 new employees at Wood, with the possibility of more if demand warrants it. Vince Dinh is president/owner of Savon Spa, which he plans to open this year on Halsted.He plans to hire 10 upon opening Savon with plans for expansion.

With dozens of businesses opening up, the neighborhood’s adding dozens if not hundreds of jobs.

Several owners say they’re confident the trend is heading in the right direction.

“Lakeview’s diverse dining, shopping and culture options offer a broad appeal to visitors and residents of all ages,” said Savon Spa owner Dinh.

Dinh says his spa will offer “5-star service coupled with our unique organic product portfolio will prove to retain and attract clients looking for the ultimate Organic Spa experience.”

Elixer manager Kotwa added: “[The openings] move the epicenter of Halsted Street, which has been so concentrated on Roscoe and Halsted corner. I’m finally glad to see that it’s gravitating up north, because the more businesses on the street the more consumers, which is better for everyone.”

Martino’s confident, too.

“I think we can sustain more and more,” she said. “There are probably a lot of local people that are beginning to be regulars and not leave the district.

“You have a whole bunch of people that live along the lakefront, now they might be thinking of staying here … because there are more options for them.”