April 24, 2009

Park 52 owner challenges community to bring more inventive restaurants to Hyde Park

When Jerry Kleiner, the restaurateur behind Opera, Carnivale, and other Chicago restaurants, opened the upscale American bistro Park 52 on East 52nd Street this past April, Hyde Park residents expected Hyde Park to transform into a restaurant destination. With Park 52, as well as La Petit Folie and Chant, hopes were high that Hyde Park was on its way to becoming the next River North or South Loop, neighborhoods that Kleiner helped transform into dining hot spots. While the hopes of many residents and business owners fell when the economy tanked, Mark Brooks, a Hyde Park native who owns Park 52 with Kleiner, remains confident that his restaurant can succeed because it provides the community with a dining experience one cannot find anywhere else in the area. “I realized there was a void in the community. I felt I had a pulse on what the community needed and what it lacked,” he said.Although Brooks said he did not yet see Hyde Park as a restaurant destination, in part because of what he called the “stigma attached to the South Side,” he challenged the community to “kick it up a notch” and explore more inventive restaurants.The University has been involved in efforts to improve retail and dining in the area, working to redevelop Harper Court. Still lacking any tangible results, the University has considered a late-night diner in the new development.Susan Campbell, associate vice president and director of the Office of Community Affairs, said that while the density of the North Side makes it easier to run a restaurant, Hyde Park is already a destination for the South Side.While most restaurant owners want to be downtown in what they consider the heart of Chicago, Brooks said Hyde Park has other benefits. “Everyone else is already there and it’s costly. We have the President, who still has a Hyde Park residence, the potential 2016 Olympics, the University of Chicago, and now we have a hot, new restaurant in Park 52.” In the most recent issue of Chicago Magazine, Park 52 was named one of the top 22 new restaurants in ChicagoPark 52 offers a more upscale dining experience than many Hyde Park venues. Its menu offerings range from seared tilapia to grilled skirt steak, with many items starting around $15. “We have a great product at a reasonable price point. There’s nothing like something new, fresh, and innovative,” Brooks said.Other new ideas include lunch offerings starting May 1, outdoor patio seating, weekly jazz nights, Sunday brunch, and perhaps most welcome of all, half prices for U of C students on Wednesday nights. As Brooks said, “We’re not as pricey as people think. We’re here for the community at large and we take feedback to heart.”Brooks said the recession has made the project more challenging, but Park 52 hasn’t gotten hit any harder than other businesses. “I don’t think its just Hyde Park that’s suffering. There’s a brighter horizon and the sky’s the limit,” he said. “I’m where I want to be right now. We had something called a recession but we are very conscious of value—that’s our mantra.”