Wicker Park's Dining DNA
For a few years now I've listened to neighborhood soothsayers ramble about Wicker Park's downward spiral from hip cultural Mecca to an enclave of dilluted and superficial hot air. People love to chime in on this neighborhood they don't live in or even visit that often, proclaiming it "past its prime" or the "new Lincoln Park." That last one is my favorite, not only because it's utterly incorrect (have you been to these respective neighborhoods lately — they couldn't be more different), but it suggests Lincoln Park is this wasteland of homogeny. As if Lincoln Park is Dubuque, Iowa, or something. For all the Wicker Park naysayers, let's take a look at how the neighborhood is not only reclaiming its crown as hip cultural keystone in Chicago, but also how it is setting a new precedent in ways no other neighborhood has managed to do. Naturally, the culinary scene is at that forefront.
(Tacos at Big Star. Vital.)
First and foremost, let's not forget that Wicker Park is home to some of Chicago's most feverishly popular dining and drinking establishments. Nary a day goes by where Big Star's patio isn't bulging at capacity, with wait lines winding down the block. Across the street, sister bar The Violet Hour was responsible for kickstarting Chicago's craft cocktail scene several years ago, and it remains a pivotal attraction for cocktail aficionados near and far. Sometimes very very far. Soon to come, Big Star will expand its patio drastically, as well as launch another sister spot next door called Dove's Luncheonette. Considering the talent behind these brands — one of the city's most popular and successful restaurant groups, One Off Hospitality — any new venture is poised to attract hordes and hit it out of the park.
Another venerable Wicker Park mainstay is about to sprout a new side project. Piece has been hot on North Avenue for years; the pizzeria and brewery even earned a starring role in the original Chicago edition of The Real World. Pause for LOL. And now that the pizzeria has more than proven its staying power, it's ready to branch off with an adjacent bagel concept: BroBagel. The formula is simple, focusing on several bagel varieties including one infused with Piece beer because obviously. There will also be coffee, pastries, sandwiches, and other vittles.
Hot on the heels of these neighborhood trendsetters is an impressive wave of chef-driven eateries setting up shop from elsewhere. In some cases, these incomers are new locations of local restaurants, in other cases, they are outlets based in far-flung sectors of the country. This week, the second outpost of River North-originated XOCO sets up shop on Milwaukee Avenue. Following Rick Bayless' successful template for tortas, caldos, chips, churros, and other Mexican street snacks, XOCO 2.0 will feature a broader scale of menu items, including brunch and a full-fledged booze program. Shortly after XOCO opens, Chicago welcomes its first location of Umami Burger, the Los Angeles-based burger juggernaut that has since spawned locations across the country. And not long after that, Wicker Park will welcome Chicago's second locale for Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams. The Columbus, Ohio-based ice cream sensation opened its inaugural outpost on Southport not long ago, which adjoins the multiple Ohio locations, plus Tennessee, Atlanta, and Charleston. Expect a larger space in Wicker Park with the same dizzying array of deliciousness, from brambleberry crisp to beer nuts.
Wicker Park has also become the quintessential neighborhood for food trucks going brick-and-mortar. Arguably Bridgeport gives Wicker a run for its money in this department, but the latter is the only neighborhood with late-night empanadas, so I think we know who the winner is. Those empanadas belong to 5411 Empanadas, the South American food truck-cum-empanada shop that opened in Lincoln Park. Now with this second location, there are more hours, more booze, and more space. Around the corner on Damen, Tamale Station is the new home base for Tamale Spaceship, one of Chicago's most popular and colorful food trucks staffed by employees sporting Mexican fighting masks. The order of the day is tamales, tacos, elotes, salads, and other Mexican snacks.
(20 years in, pancakes at Bongo Room continue to matter.)
All this is just the tip of the iceberg. Don't forget about Los Angeles-based doughnut institution Stan's Donuts & Coffee sweeping into Chicago with a slick cafe in Wicker Park, or Max's Wine Dive coming from Texas to enrich Milwaukee Ave. with fried chicken and Champagne, or the longstanding brunch favorite Bongo Room that continues to draw lines each and every weekend. From those original days of gentrification and cultural genesis, Wicker Park has remained at the forefront of dining and drinking in Chicago. The neighborhood is not the "new Lincoln Park" or the new anything for that matter. It makes its own rules, draws diners from near and far, and continues to shine brighter than ever.
- Matt Kirouac