First Taste: Plein Air Cafe & Eatery

As Hyde Park continues to draw in chefs and their new concepts, my fascination with the south side 'hood is reaching a fever pitch. First there was Matthias Merges, then there was news of The Promontory (still eagerly waiting on that one), and then there was Kevin Heisner, probably the most interesting bar-focused restaurateur in Chicago right now. The rampant businessman continues to open killer new spots all over the city, but what his new Hyde Park spot, Plein Air Cafe & Eatery, offers is something different entirely. Not only is this a departure from his usual Heisler Hospitality organizations, wherein he and his business partner Matt Eisler mastermind some of the city's quintessential bars, but it's a daytime cafe that basically veers in the opposite direction from the usual boozy concepts. It's also a partnership with artistically minded Soo Choi, whose resume includes the South Loop's esteemed Little Branch Cafe. Together, they tag-team something truly special in Hyde Park, bolstering the neighborhood's credibility as a dining destination.

Pastries at Plein Air
(Pastries at Plein Air Cafe & Eatery)

The Space

Plein Air is a French expression for painting outdoors. So naturally the motif at Plein Air Cafe & Eatery is as lustrous, sunny, and airy as you'd hope. The French atelier-inspired space is tranquil and zen, a calming escape from the collegiate hustle and bustle going on outside in the neighborhood. With that "open air" mentality in mind, Heisner and Choi curated a space that is bright, white-washed, and leisurely. Although the 40-seat cafe gets pretty crowded on weekends, it tends not to feel crampled. Seating is spacious enough and table arrangements are thoughtful enough to keep things comfortable and flowing. Dark walnut tables and French white walls are a cozy juxtaposition, with a little bit of tasteful taxidermy mounted on the wall to overlook the proceedings. The counter service cafe has a homey-looking order window outfitted with glass panels, pastry displays, and the general look of an urban cabin. Guests can access the cafe through the Robie House, while windows in Plein Air pour out over the gorgeous University of Chicago Hyde Park campus.

The Food

Similar to Heisner's other concept, Lone Wolf, he turns to Pleasant House Bakery to construct the food program. And considering how successful they are at Lone Wolf, it bodes well to have Pleasant House fare in this Hyde Park cafe as well. Expanding on their standard Pleasant House menu, the cafe sports chef Art Jackson's signature savory Royal Pies, along with a miscellany of pastries, continental breakfast, mascarpone-stuffed French toast, meatloaf tartines, grain bowls, salads, and more. The meatloaf tartine is pretty extraordinary, because the only thing that can make red wine gravy-slathered meatloaf any better is serving it atop a thick slice of tender bread. In the a.m., cranberry spelt scones are pretty special. The menu is at its sweetest with modest-but-delicious chocolate chip cookies and more decadent creations such as sticky toffee pudding.

The Drinks

Coffee is king at Plein Air Cafe & Eatery. The cafe's specialty brewing program features an array of rotating craft roasters, augmenting pastries, savory pies, and tartines perfectly with wholesome brew.

The Art and Music

Going even further with the warming aesthetics of the space, art and music are paramount at Plein Air. Choi turns to a rotating lineup of artists to showcase their work and decorate the space with different artistic themes. Additionally, she employs an all-vinyl playlist to give the ambience that little extra oomph.

- Matt Kirouac