Hyde Park welcomes newest businesses

By Usman Ahmed

A handful of new eateries, a Japanese spa, a movie theater, and a celebrated blues-and-jazz club are just a few of the new spots adding to a business revitalization in Hyde Park and surrounding neighborhoods.

Gourmands throughout the city should be excited by restaurateur Jerry Kleiner’s announcement that he will be opening a Hyde Park restaurant in spring 2006. Kleiner—known for his other successful Chicago eateries, which include Vivo, Opera, and Gioco—will open his new restaurant in Harper Court, next door to the Checkerboard Lounge. Kleiner’s move prompted Chicago Tribune restaurant critic Phil Vettel to claim in a September 8 article that Hyde Park is poised to become a “legitimate dining destination” in a few years.

“I love that area ,” Kleiner told the Chicago Tribune. “There are 50,000 people here, you’ve got the university and the hospital, and the city has been fixing up Lake Shore Drive. I thought this would be a good opportunity.”

The yet-unnamed restaurant will open thanks to a discounted lease rate from the University. Jo Reizner, director of real estate operations for the University, said that construction crews have just finished demolition of the space’s interior and will soon begin construction on the restaurant.

The University is currently trying to bring another eatery to Hyde Park, according to Reizner. While Reizner could not offer specifics on the “food concept,” she said that the property in question is the former Fannie May space in the Hyde Park Shopping Center.

Eateries that have recently sprouted in Hyde Park include a branch of the privately owned and operated Chicago-based Potbelly Sandwich Works, which opened this fall in the Hyde Park Shopping Center. Potbelly’s move to Hyde Park followed another popular sandwich franchise, Quizno’s Sub, which opened two eateries in Hyde Park last year.

Istria Café, a locally owned and operated coffee shop, opened the first of its two locations at the 57th Street Metra Station this fall. Tim Chau, co-owner of Istria Café and Hyde Park resident, said he wanted to open a coffee shop that was “more dynamic” and “more European” than the traditional run-of-the-mill American coffee house.

A second Istria coffee house, located at the 51st Street Metra Station, will open soon. The delay, Chau said, is due to Metra conducting “significant engineering work” on the space.

Additionally, Chau and his co-owner, Paul Pribaz, have plans to open at least two more coffee houses in Hyde Park, which he said will be “more conveniently” located than the Metra station coffee shops. Chau would not comment on the details, citing lease negotiations, but said that an announcement on the proposals could be expected in the next few weeks.

De Rice, a restaurant serving Asian- American fare, including sushi, recently opened its kitchen at the corner of 47th Street and South Drexel Boulevard.

While the restaurant, which has been open for some time, does not have the same name recognition as other Hyde Park eateries, it is popular among students for its inexpensive sushi and late-night delivery service.

“It’s easily the best sushi in Hyde Park,” said Ricky Maher, a third-year in the College and self-described “sushi expert.” He said that the Dragon Maki is one of his favorite dishes.

In about six weeks, the corner of 53rd Street and Dorchester Avenue will be the home of Hyde Park’s first Japanese spa, according to owner Stuart Luppescu. Luppescu, who works at the Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University, explained that his wife, who is Japanese, had “dreamed” of opening such a business for some time.

“We want to introduce Hyde Park to one aspect of Japanese culture,” said Luppescu, adding that he and his wife had decided to open their business in Hyde Park because, they thought, “Hyde Park is a very sophisticated, intelligent neighborhood.”

In addition to hair and beauty services such as Japanese permanent hair straightening, the new business will also have facilities and staff for Japanese medicinal bath—“a very important party of Japanese culture”—acupuncture, and Shiatsu massage.

The fate of Harper Theater, also known as the Meridian Theater, remains undecided, after University officials speculated in spring 2005 that the historic building might be converted into a mixed-use property after initial proposals to renovate the derelict building into a movie theater fell through.

According to Reizner, plans to proceed with alternative proposals for the space were cut short after an “11th-hour” proposal by a New York–based company. The new company, which the University had not initially approached, is currently negotiating with the University to renovate the space.

The Checkerboard Lounge, a legendary blues and jazz hot spot, will celebrate its grand opening the weekend of November 18 when it moves locations and opens in Harper Court.