Burgeoning neighborhood burgers
Creative new pizza, burger joints show evolution by North Avenue
01/05/2011 10:00 PM
In 25 years at Levy Restaurants, the world’s first haute cuisine baseball stadium vendor, chef John McLean strived to prepare classic American food in an adventurous way.
“My passion,” he said, “is pizza and burgers.”
McLean is channeling that passion into two new restaurants of his own, both of which opened in August at the booming intersection of Clybourn and North avenues.
Burger Bar, at 1578 N. Clybourn Ave., serves beer and burgers with mildly esoteric topping options.
Sono Wood Fired, adjacent at 1580 N. Clybourn Avenue, features “rossa” and “bianco” pizzas with what McLean calls “very economical Argentinean, Chilean, and Italian wines.”
The sleek-looking, hardwood restaurants are a perfect example of how Lincoln Park, especially the South of North Avenue or “SoNo” neighborhood, keeps attracting new businesses despite the prolonged economic downturn.
McLean stresses his restaurants provide affordable and even socially responsible food and drink.
“The level of pretension in restaurants is coming way down,” he said. “People are looking for a more casual feel and I tie that into the economy.”
At Levy Restaurants, a food service vendor for sports and entertainment venues, McLean said he grew to love the “craft” of constructing pizza and burgers. In those years, the company rolled out fine dining at Cubs and White Sox games and then ventured into concert and convention venues like McCormick Place.
An Oak Park resident, McLean’s first thought was to open one of his two restaurants in Lakeview and the other in Uptown, but decided it would be more practical — and have a greater community impact — if he opened the stores side-by-side in the unfilled properties on Clybourn and North.
McLean’s wife, Cary, designed both restaurants. Each features wood floors and tables, graffiti-style designs by Chicago artist Juan Angel Chavez, and chalkboards because, McLean said, “We change our menu a lot.”
The restaurants, though, are markedly different. Burger Bar is open seven days a week and on Sunday afternoon had a sizable crowd watching the Bears game on flat screen TVs.
Sono Wood Fired, meanwhile, is open Monday through Saturday and has no TVs and a smaller, quieter atmosphere.
“I kind of don’t want to make these distinctions,” McLean said. “But Wood Fired is more of a female crowd.”
McLean sees the restaurants as part of a rapidly developing neighborhood. “There’s been rapid development in the South of North Avenue area in the last few years,” he said. “It’s really caught up to the rest of Lincoln Park.”
Burger Bar and Sono Wood Fired are located across the street from the bustling new Lincoln Park Apple Store, which opened in late October. They’re also a block away from the third-largest Whole Foods in the world, at Kingsbury Street and North, which opened in May 2009.
Padraic Swanton, a spokesman for the Lincoln Park Chamber of Commerce, said that new restaurants are a logical result “of new anchor institutions like Whole Foods and Apple.”
The growth south of North Avenue is in a neighborhood that was partly recession proof, Swanton said.
“We did see some economic downturn in 2007 and 2008,” Swanton said. “Everyone saw downturn, but there was a softer blow in our neighborhood because of DePaul and Children’s Memorial Hospital.”
McLean stresses the affordability and common appeal of his menus. For example, the average entrée at Sono Wood Fired is about $14 and bottles of wine range between $30 and $50. “It’s not fancy,” he said. “It’s just pizza.”
McLean also focuses on the fact that many of his ingredients are locally grown. “People are much more knowledgeable about ingredients and I think this started about ten years ago,” McLean said.
For that, he thanks the culture that’s come from his businesses like his new neighbor, “high-end grocery stores like Whole Foods. People who shop there understand what are fantastic shitake mushrooms. They are just more cognizant of what they consume.”