Hot restaurant scene complements boom in residential building

Where there’s smoke there’s fire, and presently the fire is on the back of my palate, courtesy of the “Flores de Jaiba” appetizer at Salpicon, 1252 N. Wells St., in Old Town.

The dish consists of fresh squash blossoms stuffed with jumbo blue crabmeat and avocado mousse, served with a spicy chipotle cream sauce and garnished with frizzled beets. Luckily there is a glass of chilled Penfolds Reserve Eden Valley Reisling (2001) within arm’s reach. After a few sips – okay, gulps – I send a warning to my dining partner. I hold my hand above the dish and point downward: “This is hot.”

I may as well be pointing to the ground beneath the restaurant because the Near North Side, which Salpicon calls home, is as they say south of the border, muy caliente.

Next door, RDM Development recently built two new condo towers, the sold-out 95-unit Neapolitan and the 88-unit Venetian, which at press time had just one unit remaining for sale. Just west of there, MCL Companies is selling new townhouses priced from the $680s and single-family homes in the $1 million range at Old Town Village, in the shadows of the Chicago Housing Authority’s remaining Cabrini-Green highrises.

The new Sofitel Chicago Water TowerAt press time, New Homes counted 16 new highrise developments underway throughout the Near North Side, ranging from the 758-unit Trump Tower, just north of the Loop, to Smithfield Development’s 46-unit boutique highrise at 30 W. Oak, in the Gold Coast.

Virtually every corner of the Near North Side – from the once-industrial blocks around Kingsbury and Chicago, on the edge of Cabrini-Green, to the former docks of River East to the tony streets of the long-settled Gold Coast – is in demand among home buyers. The former Montgomery Ward & Co. headquarters, 500 W. Superior, is now the chic Montgomery, a 243-unit condo conversion with units priced up to $2 million, and even the sprawling Ward’s catalogue building, the behemoth that hugs the curve of the river at Chicago Avenue, has been converted into luxury lofts as well as office and retail space.

The old Water Tower and the John Hancock CenterThat mixed-use project, called “Domain,” also happens to be the site of one of the hottest restaurant openings in the city in recent memory, at Japonais, 600 W. Chicago Ave., a two-level affair serving a fusion of French and Japanese cuisine.

There have been dozens of similar openings in recent years on the Near North Side, celebrating the birth of high-quality, independently operated, chef-driven restaurants – the kinds of places that earn reputations across the country and get featured in glossy magazines. They increasingly count as an important factor in Chicago’s status as a world-class city, and more important for their growing base of neighborhood patrons, they have made the Near North Side one of the most livable parts of Chicago.

Condos and cuisine

Sushi Samba RioBut what is the relationship between the upscale eateries and residential development on the Near North Side? There’s no doubt that commercial and residential development can be complementary, and on the Near North Side, both certainly contribute to Mayor Richard Daley’s stated goal of a “24-hour downtown.” But how does one really affect the other?

“When we opened Saiko, our third restaurant in the South Loop, I remember the condo people saying, ‘There are these great restaurants right here,'” says restaurant developer Howard Davis, who with former business partner Jerry Kleiner opened Gioco in 1999 and later, Opera. “They were listing our restaurants in the flyers to try to sell the neighborhood.”

Of course, in the South Loop, those restaurants only opened after many years of steady residential development. Neighborhood residents lamented for more than a decade that apart from a few spots in Printers Row, the South Loop suffered from a dearth of restaurants and other services.

Construction on Trump Tower is underway at 401 N. Wabash Ave.It’s typical, developers, say, for commercial development (including restaurants) to follow residential building in “new” or emerging neighborhoods. In Near North neighborhoods like Old Town and Streeterville, new restaurants have built on residential foundations, but in River North, the process has to some extent been reversed. A base of restaurants and other amenities already was in place before the residential lofts and condos came along, and that has been a factor in the area’s speedy transformation from a district of galleries, restaurants and offices into one of the most popular residential neighborhoods downtown.

“Restaurants were a driving force, that whole element of the cosmopolitan nature and mixed uses of River North – the restaurants, galleries and offices – paved the way for the in-fill (development),” says Jerry Lasky, of Spectrum Real Estate Services. “That’s why River North is desired as the ultimate place to live and work.”

Residential came later

Inside Schneider Gallery in the River North gallery districtAt the end of the ’70s River North had a seedy, abandoned feel, full of hulking half-empty warehouses and not much else. Those warehouses, it turned out, were perfect for art galleries, which liked the large rough-hewn spaces and loved the bargain rents. As galleries moved into ground-floor spaces, the upper floors of the old warehouses often were converted into cheap office space. During the ’80s, restaurants also started to pop up in River North, attracted to low rents, creative spaces and proximity to the Loop and expressway.

Another key addition and catalyst for development was the East Bank Club, which opened in 1980 on a barren stretch of the Chicago River as one of the country’s premiere health, sports and dining facilities. Like many nearby restaurants, the club preceded residential development and was more interested in the site’s size and proximity to the Loop than in the sparse blocks that surrounded it.

Lasky, whose current holdings include six buildings in River North, became involved in the area in the mid-’80s. With partner Murray Peretz, he converted the old Union Square Sewing Company into upscale loft condos in 1996.

The Ferris wheel at Navy PierThere had been some notable residential conversions before Union Square, during the early ’90s – loft condos by LR Development, Atlantis, Kenard Corp. and Urban Innovations – but these were largely anomalous projects. Even after they were successfully completed, no one thought of River North as a residential neighborhood. It was a place for art openings and dinners out, but you didn’t want to get caught there long after dark.

Today, just nine years after Spectrum’s adventurous loft conversion, River North has the feel of a real neighborhood. The lofts have been followed by a long line of highrises, which added population and replaced copious surface parking lots that weren’t exactly helping the neighborhood ambience. More and more restaurants have followed, and the growing residential base is now supplying neighborhood patrons for restaurants that draw from well beyond the suburbs.

A Streeterville boom

The Old Town Ale HouseStreeterville is much denser than River North. The lakefront neighborhood has long had a comparatively big population and a good base of restaurants, and both are growing at a quick clip these days. Les Nomades, 222 E. Ontario St., made big news when the private club went public with its upscale brownstone setting. Chef Roland Liccioni left in 2004, but Chris Nugent, an alum of New York’s Drovers Inn as well as Chicago restaurants Tru, Grace and Zealous, has been getting good reviews. Tru, short for Tramonto Unlimited after chef Rick Tramonto, at 676 N. Saint Clair St., is of course, one of the best restaurants not just in Streeterville or Chicago, but according to many, in the country.

Returning from American Girl PlaceAt least some of the latest highrises planned for Streeterville are getting the same sorts of glowing reviews as the neighborhood’s best restaurants. World-renowned Chicago-based architect Helmut Jahn has returned to the downtown scene with 600 N. Fairbanks, a 41-story planned highrise that will angle outward from a narrow base to lean alluringly over an adjacent building. Centrum Properties has resurrected the failed Grand Pier site with a 281-unit tower that will creatively use part of the previous development, at 240 E. Illinois St., as a base in the first phase of Cityfront Plaza.

Architect Robert Bistry, of Built Form Architecture, who won high praise for his RiverBend design, has designed a modern tower with a long expanse of glass at Avenue East, planned for 160 E. Illinois St. And architects Brininstool & Lynch have designed the sort of progressive tower for which they’ve become known in Chicago, at 550 St. Clair, a planned 26-story condo highrise with 112 units.

Streeterville and the Gold Coast long have had their share of upscale towers and eateries, but Old Town, like River North, received a recent boost from the redevelopment of Cabrini-Green, which has improved safety and brought dozens of new residential developments to a once blighted area. The blocks bounded by the Chicago River on the south and west, the lake on the east and North Avenue on the north have become among the hottest in the country for both new homes and new eats.

Laura Sauls takes her dog Alli for a strollAmong the new restaurants is Davis’ LeLan, 749 N. Clark St., where the kitchen is manned by two of the city’s most celebrated chefs: Arun Sampanthavivat of Arun’s, and Roland Liccioni, formerly of Les Nomades. To the north, chef Jacky Pluton has opened a highly anticipated new restaurant called Pluton, at 873 N. Orleans St.

Before the makeover

Jenn Galdes, a Chicago restaurant publicist, remembers living in the area before its makeover. It was not pretty, she says.

“I worked at the Four Seasons and I would walk home or try to find a cab, but sometimes cabs wouldn’t go there,” she says. “I would get in and give my address, 1438 N. Mohawk, and the driver would always do a double take, and I’d always have to explain, ‘No, it’s okay, I live there.’ If I ever called for a cab, they’d go, ‘No, sorry, we don’t go there.'”

Mark Miles, owner of World of Wireless in Lincoln Park, now lives in a condo conversion just a block from where Galdes lived in the late 1990s.

Sailing past the Near North side“I’ve been there four years and it’s definitely different than it was,” Miles says. “Literally, when I first moved in I would call 911 three or four times a week for people dealing drugs on the corner. And when you got to the holidays – Fourth of July, New Year’s Eve – there was definitely stuff going off that was not fireworks.”

Today, the neighborhood is filled with young professionals who want to be close to downtown, but also want a real neighborhood, which Miles didn’t see when he looked at the South Loop. He and his girlfriend now enjoy living among other couples who are committed to building a solid community.

“There aren’t so many kids around here as there are dogs (Miles has two Springer Spaniels),” he says. “We love the neighborhood. It’s very safe, but every once in a while you’ll get someone driving by looking at property and they call you over to their car and go, ‘Can we ask you a few questions? Is it safe…?’ These are people who are intrigued by the area but still a little apprehensive.”

Asking for change on the Magnificent MileThey probably haven’t dined at Heat, 1507 N. Sedgwick St., where the sushi is literally still moving when it arrives (not for everyone, admittedly), or down the road a stretch, at Nacional 27, 325 W. Huron St., an elegant Latin-influenced spot featuring the dazzling cuisine of chef Randy Zweiban. This is where Miles has chosen to dine tonight, but he has long known the benefits of living near downtown.

For seven years before he bought his condo on Mohawk Street, he lived in Sandburg Village. He is sold on living in an actual neighborhood, a place with foot traffic and nightlife.

Nacional 27, which is in the heart of the River North gallery district, has catered to the after-work crowd and to those making the trip south for Zweiban’s “Nuevo Latino” fare and the sizzling dance scene on weekends. But even this area is changing – becoming more of a real neighborhood – and no one knows this better than chef Michael Taus, who opened Zealous, 419 W. Superior St., a few blocks away, nearly five years ago.

“We were pioneers,” Taus says. “It was a little rough. Scoozi (410 W. Huron St.) was on the next block, but that was about it. All my friends kept saying, ‘You’re crazy, what are you doing?'”

But it has paid off, says Taus, who has lived in the neighborhood for six years.

“I feel like Mr. Rogers,” he says. “I was walking around the block with this friend of mine and everyone was like, ‘Hey, Michael…hey, Michael.’ By the time I got around the block, six people said hi to me. It’s my neighborhood. It’s a really tight community.”

Growing convenience

And like Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, Mr. Taus’ neighborhood has a homey feel despite its location among a dense collection of highrises and converted warehouses, all less than a mile from North Michigan Avenue. “I’ve never lived someplace so quiet,” Taus says.

Canadian folk group Vishten performs at the World Music Festival at Navy PierEven the always-bustling North Michigan Avenue has seen a burst of new restaurants since restaurateur extraordinaire Richard Melman and chef Jimmy Bannos opened Heaven on Seven, 600 N. Michigan, seven years ago in what some people have taken to calling the “North Bridge neighborhood” much the way they’re christening a few blocks west “the Cathedral District.”

“We were one of the first,” says Bannos, who founded the original Heaven on Seven in the Loop in 1984 and bought himself out of the partnership with Melman a couple of years after the second location opened. “Since we opened, there have been like 15 or 20 new restaurants over there. And then when the Jewel at Grand and State went up – that’s when you knew it was a neighborhood.'”

There’s an even clearer indication that this is a neighborhood to be reckoned with across the street from the Jewel: a Starbucks.

The River North Association’s Web site says it all: “In the last few years, River North has become the epicenter of Chicago nightlife. The restaurant scene is overflowing with food from all over the world. With this diversity and number of restaurants, there is surely something for everyone.”

South of Grand, in an area that was once overrun with adult bookstores and peep shows, high cholesterol seems to be the new vice. There’s Keefer’s, 20 W. Kinzie St.; Kevin, 9 W. Hubbard St.; Brasserie Jo, 59 W. Hubbard St.; Bin 36, 339 N. Dearborn St.; Frontera Grill / Topolobampo, 445 N. Clark St.; Coco Pazzo, 300 W. Hubbard St.; and NAHA, 500 N. Clark St. – site of the former fine dining destination, Gordon’s.

Too much development?

And alongside the restaurants, the residential developments keep on coming. Mega-developer American Invsco has capitalized on the River North boom with three new developments – Millennium Centre, a 341-unit art deco-style residential tower at 33 W. Ontario St.; the Sterling, a 389-unit highrise at 345 N. LaSalle St.; and Plaza 440 Private Residences, a 50-story project at 440 N. Wabash Ave. According to American Invsco, more than 350 units were sold Plaza 440 during a 60-day period at the end of last summer, and back in 2000, at a pre-construction event, Millennium Centre nearly sold out in one night.

“The key to this area’s growing popularity over the last three years or so, and in particular, the River North neighborhood, is convenience,” says Ted Sveda, who has managed sales at Plaza 440 and several other Invsco projects. “Residents have everything they need at their fingertips – close proximity to Michigan Avenue, the river, a wide array of shops and restaurants and in many cases, their offices.”

Some wonder if parts of the Near North Side are becoming too popular for their own good. The neighborhood group Streeterville Organization of Active Residents says it’s trying to make sure that development east of Michigan Avenue doesn’t get out of hand, that sidewalks remain wide, that parking remains underground and trees don’t disappear.

Belgravia Group and Sandz Development overcame concerns about density and shading to launch 600 N. Lake Shore Drive, a two-tower complex in development in Streeterville. The Fourth Presbyterian Church, at Michigan and Chestnut, however, had to put on hold plans for a new condo tower behind the church after opposition from neighbors.

“We just want it to be positive development for the area,” says Gail Spreen, SOAR’s vice president. “We want (developers) to keep the residents of the neighborhood in mind.”

Vince Satkoff and his wife, chef Priscila Satkoff, should perhaps have given more thought to the neighborhood when they started building Salpicon on the ground floor of their home at Division and Wells. The location proved tough, and the first few years were touch-and-go, though the last five have been sweet like flan.

“Before we had a lot of crack dealers and prostitutes hanging around on the corner and there’s none of that anymore,” Vince Satkoff says. “We get a ton of walk-ins and a ton of locals from the developments behind us and west of us, around the corner. One building went up at 1212 N. Wells, and we have at least a dozen regulars from there who come in once, maybe twice a week.

“There was a time when people would head over to Wells and walk north, never south. When we first opened we thought, ‘If we have excellent food, they will come.'”

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