Can Highland Park Handle All These New Eats?
Why is the city seeing a spike in its restaurants and dessert spots? Can it sustain them all?
Earlier this week, Time Out Chicago asked if Highland Park was becoming the next Restaurant Row.
Listing off new, upscale restaurants like Moderno and Benjamin and increasingly popular dessert places like Frost and Menchie's, the article made a compelling case for Highland Park's place as "the next big eating destination." (Of course, the article also mentioned Real Urban Barbecue and the city's dueling cupcake stores, but we covered both of those a while back.)
So as someone who is always curious, especially when it comes to food, I wondered: Is this a trend? If so, why now? And how long can it last?
Want Highland Park news in your inbox every morning? Subscribe to Patch's newsletter.
According to Business Economic and Development Commissioner (BEDC) Alyssa Knobel, there is a trend, and it's no accident.
"It's been a very big team effort on the part of the different business districts … in trying to attract these restaurants and businesses," Knobel said.
Citing the work the commission has done with the Downtown Highland Park Alliance for initiatives like Restaurant Week, Knobel said that residents and property owners have been working together to make Highland Park more appealing to restauranteurs.
"Is it a coincidence? Not really," Knobel said. "They're working hard at it."
City Councilman Paul Frank has also noticed the upswing of dining and dessert options in Highland Park in the past year. In addition to the help from the BEDC, Frank believes part of the city's appeal is its mix of specialty shops, its walkability and spots like Port Clinton Square and Renaissance Place where people can gather.
"Business owners know there's something attractive about that in Highland Park," Frank said.
Taking advantage of prime space
On Wednesday, John des Rosiers cut the ribbon on Moderno, his new Italian restaurant located at the former Rosebud in Renaissance Place. This is the second Italian place to open this year, with Bobby Dubin opening his 2nd Street Enoteca last month.
As Ed Brill pointed out in his column about the restaurant, Moderno is an ambitious project for des Rosiers, who owns Inovasi in Lake Bluff. But as his review of the restaurant makes clear, that ambition appears to be paying off.
Frank was at Wednesday's ribbon cutting, and he's glad that a restauranteur is taking advantage of a prime space in the city.
"Moderno saw opportunity with an opening that is arguably one of the best locations for a restaurant in the whole north shore," Frank said. "I hope they take advantage of the outdoor space."
Where the BEDC is really helping, Frank believes, is in its research into what kinds of businesses would best suit the city.
"I definitely think that the BEDC and Alyssa Knobel are doing some great things in developing research and … putting some thought into planning the desired mix of businesses," Frank said. "The one time you put your economy at risk is when you invest too heavily in one type of business."
One sweet trend
Not everyone's convinced that this trend is anything new. Bluegrass owner Jim Lederer, who says he saw an uptick in his own business thanks to Restaurant Week, called the idea that Highland Park is becoming Restaurant Row "comical."
Lederer said his decision to open his restaurant in Highland Park was an accident, but one that's worked out well for him. He said that if he's noticed a trend, it's been in the sweets department. Frost, ArrivaDolce, Menchie's, Marla's Sweet Bites, Turtles, Baker Boys and Highland Pop are all relatively new dessert spots. Many Highland Park natives grew up just with Dairy Queen, Lederer said.
The question, then, becomes one of sustainability. Can Highland Park support so many sweet spots and restaurants?
How to survive in Highland Park
The answer, according to Lederer, is that they'll need to bring other people to town.
"[Moderno] is not going to survive on people just in Highland Park," Lederer said. "If we survived on peple just in Highland Park, we'd have been out of business a long time ago."
Lederer is convinced that, despite the high rate of turnover in the dining industry, the new breed of restaurants and eateries in Highland Park can survive as long as their owners remain "committed and grounded within the community." Lederer cited the work he's done with Dubin and other local business owners and public figures for events like The Taste of Highland Park.
"A lot of these successful businesses don't just open up and put up a sign," Lederer said. "They get involved."
According to Knobel, groups like BEDC and the Downtown Alliance will continue with initiatives and research to maintain the trend.
"We're going to do everything we can to keep it going," Knobel said.
And while Lederer didn't seem sold on the idea that Highland Park could be the new Restaurant Row in terms of volume, he did say that the city fit the bill in one regard: Character.
"I spent 15 years on Restaurant Row," Lederer said. "It had a lot of character, and if you look at it in that light, in Highland Park, we definitely have some of that."