Mindful Metropolis — July 2011
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Eat Here: Northdown Café & Taproom
Libby Lowe

Go hungry and save room for pie

In Chicago, the word “taproom” evokes the image of fluorescent lights and cheap cans of beer. “Liquor store-adjacent” are words that come to mind. But Northdown Café and Taproom is different. Here, the burgers come from grass-fed, well-hugged cows, the produce is local and the beer is thoughtfully selected. The newest addition to the busy Lincoln/Ashland/Belmont section of West Lakeview, Northdown is the first Chicago venture from brother-andsister team Adam and Valeri Lucks, owners of Milwaukee’s Comet and Honey Pie cafés, and Tom Lee, who spent 10 years managing The Map Room. Not surprisingly, he’s the beer guy.

Ten years ago, Valeri and Adam envisioned a neighborhood hangout where the food was fresh, locally sourced and affordable.There would also be pinball.

“The idea is simple.Good food and good drinks that are accessible to everyone,” says Adam.And by good, he means locally sourced, socially conscious and super tasty.

To make their dream a reality, Adam went to culinary school in Portland and then honed his skills in various fine-dining establishments.Valeri worked in HR and perfected her Mom’s pie recipes, adapting some of them to make vegan desserts that are truly awesome.

They began their adventure in local sourcing with Comet Café and their experiences there set the stage for Northdown.

“We started working with a few local vendors and providers, it was a gateway! We worked our way from produce to dairy to meat and pork. Today, my favorite part of the job is meeting with farmers and talking to them about pigs and cows,” Adam says.

In Milwaukee, they helped establish a collective of chefs and business owners who split shares of meat and produce from local farmers— together they support 45 farms. The biggest challenge they face is keeping up with demand and balancing life in two cities. They credit their staff, many of whom have been with them for 10 years, for their success.

Most of Northdown’s menu could be described as modern takes on comfort food.There’s AJ’s Compact Turkey Dinner ($13): slow roasted turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing rolled into a ball and deep fried—with season veggies and gravy, of course; and the Open face Meatloaf Sandwich ($11).

Adam and Valeri are committed to offering real vegetarian and vegan options. There’s the Vegan Cassoulet ($11): roasted mushroom ragout, stewed navy beans, baked polenta, and braised kale; and the Seitan Philly ($10), complete with vegan cheese sauce.

“We really care about offering actual food for vegans; compound proteins, real meals.We’re expanding our dinner menu and there will always be a vegan special.”

Vegetarians who rely on grilled cheese for bar food won’t be disappointed. Northdown’s (complete with tomato soup and fries) is perfect. The beer selection is always changing and features favorites from Indiana brewer Three Floyds and craft brewers from around the world.

You can taste the care and investment in the food and drinks.

“We accept higher costs,” Valeri says. “But we offset those by not advertising or having a PR budget. We make our own menus, and we did most of the build-out of the space ourselves.” The same care clearly went into the space, which features wood reclaimed from Tom’s family’s barn in Michigan—reclaimed by Tom himself. The environment is warm and unpretentious. “Our goal is to really be part of the community, we want to be a familiar place, not necessarily a destination,” Adam says.

But, don’t be shocked if Northdown does become a destination. Brunch started in June, and, in July, Beer School is in session.

“The American Independence Beer School will feature five craft beers from the U.S. and five from England,” Valeri explains. “We’re thinking about an East Coast vs. West Coast gangsta style beer off—East vs. West Coast IPA, wheats, etc. There will also be pie and beer events.” Pinball is serious business at Northdown, which currently has Poker Tour and Golden Eye. Adam has a wish list of 20 games and plans to make the bar a spot for enthusiasts.

So go for the beer, the pinball or the food, but whatever you do, don’t leave without a slice of Valeri’s pie. On my last trip to Northdown, my table tried: the apple, the banana cream, the chocolate cream and the cherry.Go hungry and save room for pie.

Libby Lowe is a writer and editor in Chicago.She’s currently blogging about that and more at LibbyForever.WordPress.com.