Downtown Elgin’s new eats on the blocks
By Mike Danahey firstname.lastname@example.org December 19, 2012 4:02PM
Owner Alex Brito at the new restaurant Mr. Tequila's at 51 S. Grove Avenue in downtown Elgin. December 19, 2012 | Michael Smart~Sun-Times Media
The newest eateries
64 S. Grove Ave.
Danny’s on Douglas
231 Douglas Ave.
In the Neighborhood Fresh
Gail Borden Public Library
270 N. Grove Ave.
La Erencia de Mis Padres
165 E. Highland Ave.
M Squared Bakery
National Street Metra Station
51 S. Grove Ave.
On the Side Restaurant
74 S. Grove Ave.
Updated: January 21, 2013 2:38PM
ELGIN — In downtown Elgin, within the last few months, no fewer than seven new eateries on the blocks have opened for business or soon will.
They include two Mexican restaurants, two pizza parlors, a deli in Gail Borden Public Library, a bakery in the National Street Metra station depot, and a breakfast-and-lunch place.
What the folks behind these family businesses share is an optimistic view that they will be able to turn tables and eventually thrive as the economy recovers and the downtown continues its years-in-the-making efforts at revitalization.
“The approximate number of businesses downtown is about 250 to 300,” said Downtown Neighborhood Association manager Jason Pawlowski. “This year, we have had nearly 25 new businesses open or relocate to downtown Elgin. That includes seven new restaurants in the last three months alone, which is very exciting for us. We now have approximately 40 restaurants and bars in downtown, and that is up from last year.”
According to Pawlowski, for the last few years the average weekday population of residents, employees, commuters and visitors to downtown Elgin has been around 3,000 to 3,500 people. With all the restaurants there to feed them, “The diversity of choice is a selling point now,” he said.
The DNA is in the midst of a “Grub Crawl” promotion welcoming the new eateries to town. Pawlowski noted that the DNA and city staff have been working with the establishments on matters that include expediting obtaining liquor licenses and helping with the art of promotion, be it offering suggestions about competitive pricing or about marketing tools such as social media.
A trip last Friday to downtown showed that business at many if not most of the restaurants — both old and new — was relatively slow, with no more than a dozen or so at their busiest and no waits at any. That indicates that getting customers in may be a challenge, especially if the dead of winter ever comes.
Another key to success, Pawlowski agreed, will be service and getting food out in a prompt manner, particularly to those on lunch break.
A family tradition
One of the new restaurant owners knows firsthand what might be needed to make a go of it downtown.
“It’s going to take patience, lots of patience,” said restaurateur Andrew Diaz, adding that a challenge to building up clientele is continued slowness in downtown Elgin on weekends.
Diaz recently opened La Erencia de Mis Padres at 165 E. Highland Ave.
Diaz’s father, Jose Luis Diaz, opened La Puesta del Sol in that Highland spot in 1997 after starting a small grocery store called La Roca, which has been in Elgin since 1973. When he passed away in 2008, sons Jose Jr. and Marco took over the business and ran it until August 2011.
Family pictures hang on a wall near the opening to the kitchen, including a portrait of the family patriarch. The new name means “inheritance of my parents” (his mother Virginia is still alive), and Diaz said that means a passing along of the business as well as its recipes and traditions.
He prepares the restaurant’s dishes and describes them as home cooking in the “Back of the Yards style,” and as being rustic, with steak tacos and carne asada specialties of the house.
“And we have parking on the side of the building,” Diaz said of a competitive advantage he might have.
From Penney’s to Tequila
Also offering Mexican cuisine downtown now is Mr. Tequila, 51 S. Grove Ave.
The spot at one time had been a JC Penney department store. Mad Maggie’s opened there in September 2008, closed in September 2010, then briefly reopened as The Hangout. In the summer of 2011, Jessica Garcia and Anthony Carrera had signed a lease and planned to open Grove Central Station at that location and even were granted a liquor license. But costs associated with renovations, particularly repairs to elevators the city requested, led to the couple never opening. Those repairs have since been made.
The lease for the new spot came together within the last couple months, when a group of seven family and friends decided to use their collective experience in the restaurant business to open their first eatery.
The operators include Sandra Rodriguez, who moved from Florida to be close to family in the northwest suburbs. Early Friday afternoon, Rodriguez was busy tending bar, waiting tables and touting the mole rojo pork lunch special.
“We decided to open a place around here because of the casino, lots of offices, and the (Fountain Square on the River) condos across the street,” Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez said the family-oriented restaurant is using recipes from the owners’ grandmothers, quite a few reflecting the cuisine of the Guerrero region of Mexico.
And the restaurant has someone going table to table asking diners how they would like their salsa prepared before making it for them.
On The Side
A unique feature of On The Side, at 74 S. Grove Ave., is that owner-operator and chef Tom Creighton will be changing his menu weekly, offering a handful of dishes, sides and salads for breakfast and lunch.
Creighton said he checked out 20 spots before deciding to lease and open in what had been Red Bar. That restaurant opened in June 2009 and closed in May 2011.
“We looked at all sorts of places and liked that ArtSpace (the artists colony that opened this fall) is here and that the riverwalk is being built,” Creighton said. “Elgin has had some tough times, but I fell in love with the character of the space.”
Creighton lightened the tone of the Red Bar’s wood floors, chairs and tables, while his wife, Phyllis hung mirrors on the walls, giving the spot a college-town feel.
He also noted that brothers Mike and Dan Butirro opening Chooch’s Pizzeria a few doors down also helped weigh in Elgin’s favor.
The brothers have invested $600,000 into the project. And after several delays associated with renovating and converting an old building, Chooch’s is finally set to open Friday.
Its downtown pie competition, Danny’s, moved from Elgin’s west side to lease 231 Douglas Ave. in October. That address has housed the Douglas Street Sports Bar, which before that had been the Great American Family Diner, and before that Anthony’s Jazz Club and Restaurant.
“It’s been tough in downtown, but I have faith in the neighborhood,” Creighton said.
In turn, the city has helped him with $2,000 in grant money for an outdoor sign, and he has applied for up to $7,500 in grant funding to help pay for a required $14,000 grease trap.
Creighton said he came to the restaurant business after a midlife career switch to culinary arts and cooking and pastry school, then stints in hotel and restaurant kitchens. He and his family moved to East Dundee 18 months ago from the south suburbs.
“What I want to do foodwise here is relatively simple. I’m not a fancy person, and we’ll be doing seasonal stuff,” he said.
He said he chose to open for breakfast and lunch because he found a lot of dinner options nearby and that people told him there was little close by for mornings.
As for how he plans to succeed, Creighton mentioned the motto found on his menu: “My pledge is to serve food made with integrity and care. I value every customer and know that if you’re not happy, then I am not happy.”
Melissa Miracle’s plans for her M Squared Bakery involve being at work with her daughter Amanda by midnight in order to have an assortment of pastries and beverages ready by 4:30 a.m. for the early-bird commuters leaving the National Street Metra Station for downtown Chicago.
Miracle had inquired with Metra about having a food truck in the National Street Station’s lot, and learned that space inside the depot was available. She said it took her about a year to work out the details of her five-year lease.
This is Miracle’s first foray into her own retail space, and she faces competition from a well-established Dunkin’ Donuts on the other side of the river from the rails. She hopes to grow the business to include catering, will even take special orders from commuters, and plans to offer them pre-ordered ready-to-take lunches, too.
How did Miracle wind up in Elgin from DuPage County?
“We like Elgin,” she said. “When we were looking for a place, we kept winding up out here.”