The Division Street Dining Renaissance
Like the trajectory of Britney Spears' career, the Division Street corridor in Wicker Park has seen its fair share of ups and downs. From its hyper-popular heyday as a restaurant Mecca home to unique chef-driven concepts to the crash that flooded the area with more sports bars than need ever exist, the area has been treading water in restaurant purgatory for a while. Now, much like Ms. Spears, the stretch of street is poised for a comeback. It's been a long time coming, as more and more solid concepts have sprouted up in recent years, from inspired Southern homage that is Carriage House to eclectic vegetarian haven MANA food bar, but with the recent influx of new and exciting spots popping up, Division is looking better and tastier than ever.
The main hub of Wicker Park's Division Street stretch runs from Ashland at the eastern end to Western at its western terminus. For years, vacated spots sat empty and devoid. This year, though, restaurateurs have taken it upon themselves to revamp the neighborhood and bring back a bit of that glory that makes the area so diverse and cultured. Starting on the east, there's Scone City, a bakery that took the bold risk of hingeing its entire concept on one pastry. And not only that, but the scones here are wildly unique and offbeat, from coffee-infused pastries to savory scones studded with cheese, olives, and even hot dogs. The cute bakery and coffee shop is sunny, sleek, and modern, featuring an array of daily scones stacked behind the counter. A new favorite of mine is the afternoon tea scone dotted with Earl Grey tea-soaked raisins.
Across the street is a new outpost of 5411 Empanadas, a South American-inspired food truck-turned empire with brick and mortar outposts in Lincoln Park and Bucktown. This pocket-sized shop peddles pockets of Argentine dumplings filled with the likes of Malbec beef, bacon-date-goat cheese, ham and cheese, BBQ chicken, and chorizo and potato.
The most ambitious endeavor on Division is Taus Authentic, a sprawling restaurant presided over by esteemed chef Michael Taus. In the former Prasino space, Taus offers an eclectic, creative menu designed to exhibit Taus' penchant for modernity and artful cookery. The menu is wholly unique, featuring ingredients utilized in unexpected interpretations and presentations, like poached shrimp speckled with puffed brown rice, lobster with oxtail ravioli, summer melon salad with fried tofu, a seared foie "club sandwich" with jalapeno pickles, and vanilla panna cotta with huckleberry-black pepper coulis.
Towards the western edge of Division, on the opposite side of Damen, there's even more fresh excitement to be had. And speaking of fresh, let's talk about Wixter Market, a bold new market that specializes in fish and seafood frozen at the peak of freshness. The bright shop is really the only outlet in town where the public can casually peruse for sushi-grade, restaurant-quality seafood products for home use, featuring everything from tuna to hirame. Check out the impressive arsenal of tinned fish as well, like octopus, spiced calamari, and smoked sardines.
One of the coolest newcomers to Division is Pub Royale, an inspired entry from the impressive Heisler Hospitality collective (Sportsman's Club, Trenchermen, Revel Room, etc.). This lively new bar features drinks and food inspired by Anglo-Indian culture, aka the omnipresence of Indian cuisine in London. This translates to rum-splashed mango lassis, lamb dumplings, salt cod samosas, eggplant curry, and Hamm's spiked with hot sauce and spiced salt. There's also quite the array of craft beers on draft, rotating on the regular.
With another new bar entry on the way from Heisler Hospitality and an outpost of the West Loop's hyper-popular Parlor Pizza Bar, plus venerable staples like Takito Kitchen, Caffe Streets, and Smoke Daddy, Division is entering a renaissance as the dining and drinking destination it deserves to be.
- Matt Kirouac