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 and and increasingly popular dessert places like and , the article made a compelling case for Highland Park's place as "the next big eating destination." (Of course, the article also mentioned and the , but we covered both of those )

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?

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According to , 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 , 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."

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 and 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 , his new Italian restaurant located at the former Rosebud in Renaissance Place. This is the second Italian place to open this year, with opening his .

As Ed Brill pointed out in his column about the restaurant, , who owns Inovasi in Lake Bluff. But as his review of the restaurant makes clear,

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. 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."

"We have a lot of restaurants and a lot of restauranteurs who have been doing this for quite a while," Lederer said. " [now ] has been here for almost as long as I've been alive."

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, , Menchie's, Marla's Sweet Bites, , and are all relatively new dessert spots. Many Highland Park natives grew up just with , 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 .

"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."

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David Greenberg May 19, 2012 at 05:08 AM
Yep - but that was when we could walk there... no chance of that now that they're on the other side of 41 at Pk Ave West...
David Greenberg May 19, 2012 at 05:15 AM
Fells? Garnets? Woolworths? Lots of places have come and gone over the years. Restaurants come and go too. I suspect that the cupcake places (as much as I love cupcake frosting...) will go sooner than later as the cupcake fad passes. To maintain a restaurant over the years, you have to have a clean place, good service, good food, an attractive up-to-date menu, and pricing that attracts your demographic. So long as you have that, everything else tends to fall into place. For the primary example - just look at Sunset Foods. Are they a restaurant? No, technically they're a grocery store, but I'd argue that many of the Deli, Bakery, and Asian food are essentially carry-out restaurant fare - albeit it at a high quality. What makes one want to go to a "grocery store" for carry-out restaurant food? EXQUISITE service, good parking, fair prices, and you can get in-and-out extremely quickly if that's what you're looking to do. Make it easy for the customer, and they'll patronize you... Listen to your customers - don't get mad, just improve and you'll be richly rewarded with long-term loyalty (again, Sunset - I know some customers who have been shopping there for 60 years!)
Samantha Stolberg May 20, 2012 at 02:57 PM
I would love to see the large building in Briergate along 41 turn into a boutique hotel with event space (weddings, Mitzvah's?). Then they could have shuttle service to "Downtown" HP (still cringe saying 'downtown' - it's always been UPtown!) so their guests could enjoy our City. Even people who come to Ravinia could stay over night and then eat/shop in HP the next day...
Molly May 20, 2012 at 07:07 PM
After almost 20 yrs in HP I though I was fairly familiar with this town but where's Briergate?
pip May 22, 2012 at 11:44 AM
Briergate is west of downtown Highland Park, along Highway 41, Deerfield Rd, Richfield Rd, Old Skokie Rd, and Old Deerfield Rd. Some of the businesses in Briergate are Bluegrass Restaurant, Williams Ski & Patio, Tithof Tile & Marble, Craftwood Hardware & Lumber, Rick's Auto Body, Jewel Foods, 2Hot Yoga, The Boxing Pit, Ken's Quick Print, Petco, Pet Supplies Plus, Moccio's Pizza, Toys R Us, Cover Rite Upholstery, Lidia's Design, Nick's Upholstery, Pediatric Therapy, Good Impressions, Rover's Place doggie daycare, and so much more. The rents are low and there's plenty of parking. I've heard the city and property owners are working together to put in signs to help people find their way around, and they are going to improve the streets, clean up all the weeds, and plant flowers. Next year the city is going to redo Old Skokie Rd and put in curbs and defined parking. Once they put in the welcome to Briergate signs everyone will know where Briergate is.


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