05-07-08 Park 52, 5201 S. Harper, Chicago - Dining area at Park 52 on S. Harper in Chicago - - JOHN J. KIM ~ SUN-TIMES
Noble Square. Logan Square. Bucktown. Randolph Street.
If you ask a foodie, these are the hot neighborhoods in Chicago for new restaurants. So when the team behind Michelin-starred Longman & Eagle announced that their new restaurant, bar and concert venue would be in Hyde Park, rather than in one of these surefire destinations, it raised a few eyebrows.
“I grew up in Chicago, and I’ve been going to Hyde Park since I was a little kid,” explained owner Bruce Finkelman. “The one thing that always boggled me was that there are so many people down there and there’s nothing there.”’
The new restaurant, the Promontory, named for Promontory Point, is scheduled to open in early 2013, and construction has already begun. The cuisine is still under wraps; all Finkelman would say was that the restaurant would feature “modern hearth cooking” and that Chef Jared Wentworth (of Longman) would be taking the helm as executive chef.
Hyde Park doesn’t exactly have a reputation as a food destination. In a recent article on Hyde Park dining, Max Falkowitz, an editor at Serious Eats and a former resident of Hyde Park during his time at the University of Chicago, put it this way: “It’s no accident that I cooked more and better in college than any time since.” He thinks Hyde Park is cursed with a “double whammy:” college students who generally leave the neighborhood for their “occasion” dining, and a population that doesn’t have much disposable income.
“I think its part of the larger question of why retail doesn’t work in Hyde Park,” Falkowitz explained. “When I was in college, the only place to buy socks in the neighborhood was Walgreens.”
Some notable restaurants have come and gone in Hyde Park. Longtime residents may remember Mallory’s, on the top floor of the Hyde Park Bank building, which closed in the late ’80s. More recently, the Big Easy, a Cajun restaurant with a minor television celebrity for a chef, barely made it long enough to get noticed before it shuttered. Jerry Kleiner opened Park 52 with great fanfare in 2008; while it’s still open, he’s no longer involved and the restaurant failed to usher in a new era of dining for the neighborhood.
“Hyde Park fails to attract high-end anything,” said David Hoyt, a longtime resident and one of the authors of Hyde Park Progress, a blog that tracks happenings in the neighborhood. “It’s a small area, with a fairly stable community, but you don’t have a lot of weight on the higher end. There’s a raw question of: What disposable income does this community have, and how that will affect a new restaurant’s price point?”
Even when places open with great fanfare, Hoyt thinks that they often can’t keep things going. “A place opens, and it’s got a concept, and it just stagnates. When the entrepreneur gets tired or leaves, it seems to flatline.”
Hyde Park may not be hot yet, but “neither was Ukrainian Village when I opened up there, and neither was Logan Square when we opened up Longman & Eagle,” says Finkelman.
The key to any neighborhood restaurant? “I think if you look at any of my places, we are part of the community,” he says. “We’ve almost been around for 21 years. That’s one of the reasons; it’s a really honest approach. My business approach has always been simple — you do something you like, with the hopes that there are a few other people out there who will like it as well. Then you have a good shot at success.”
Anthony Todd is a local free-lance writer.