IN THE LAST FEW YEARS, Evanston has earned some serious cred as a destination just outside Chicago with all the perks of the big city and small town combined. It started with food, of course, with the entrance and incredible success of sustainable restaurant Found Kitchen and Social House (run by Morton Steakhouse heir Amy Morton). Now, with a flurry of new restaurants and the opening of several unique event venues, Evanston has become the latest all-in-one hub for the city residents, tourists and, yes, even groups.
There is a new culinary dynamic duo in Evanston. John Kim, co-owner of wildly popular Brothers K Coffeehouse, and Publican Chef De Cuisine Brian Huston are both loyal Evanstonians and together they are managing partners in a new American-style restaurant called Boltwood (named for a wing at Evanston Township High School and Evanston educator Henry Boltwood). What started as a conversation over coffee, naturally, evolved into an exciting new farm-to-table dining concept located in the middle of downtown in the former Lulu’s space on Davis Street.
"Boltwood has an ever-changing menu that is both adventurous and approachable," Kim says. "Boltwood’s beverage program complements the lunch and dinner menu with an equal commitment to local ingredients and adventurous flavors. When it comes to beer and wine, Boltwood favors quality over quantity."
Kim adds that due to the limit of space, Boltwood does not have private event space; however, there is a communal table at the center of the restaurant that can be reserved for semi-private events.
Famed French restaurant Oceanique recently celebrated its 25th anniversary with some exciting new features to brag about, including a full remodel completed in early 2014. According to General Manager Renée André, Oceanique has totally revamped the front of the house "from floor to ceiling," including new flooring, carpeting and chairs, banquette seating, wallpaper, fresh lighting and a new bar. While the private dining space remains virtually the same, new large barn doors have been added to make the space completely private.
"The new space has what I call a ‘swanky’ New York feel with contemporary elegance," says André. "Chef Mark [Grosz] offers the same level of finesse for the diners to experience, whether it is a party of two or 45. We feel service, wine and cuisine are paramount." Look for new menus, too, with options like a lobster sandwich on brioche with togarashi and saffron aioli, Maine scallop with house-made kimchi and Valrhona chocolate soufflé.
Farmhouse, next to the Hilton Orrington/Evanston Hotel, opened its doors last July and has quickly become the go-to place for drinks after work, group lunches and large events. With an expansive secondfloor event space and smaller private dining rooms on the main floor (five total-two on the main level and three on the second floor), it’s a huge hit with event planners looking to host groups of 12 to 225 people.
The food is top-notch, as well as sourced from local growers and great for sharing. "Lately, we have been hosting some really awesome farm-to-table dinners with wine or beer pairings at a set price per person," says Megan Fightmaster, event coordinator for both the Evanston and River North Farmhouse locations. A recent example includes a whole suckling pig with salad, sides and seasonal dessert along with four beer pairings.
To go along with the sustainability efforts, Fightmaster says 85 percent of the décor at Farmhouse is salvaged, including reclaimed materials from several farms in Wisconsin like old barn doors and furniture, sheets of steel and even industrial equipment. "This gives Farmhouse the rustic, comfortable environment and vibe we love," she says.
Have room for dessert? The recently opened Hoosier Mama Pie Company on Chicago Avenue makes homemade desserts like grandma’s in both savory and sweet varieties to complement any catered menu. Call in advance for bulk ordering.
In addition to the new and exciting food options, Evanston is also becoming the place for brews and drinks-an interesting development, considering the town was dry for a long period of time. Such was the inspiration for naming Temperance Beer Company, Evanston’s first-ever craft brewery and taproom located inconspicuously in a small industrial corridor behind a strip mall off of Dempster Street. Not that its discreet location has kept people away. Since opening last December, it has been mobbed every weekend.
While Temperance doesn’t serve anything aside from sandwiches on Thursdays and snack food like popcorn, nuts and jerky, groups can rent out the entire space for tastings and events. With up to 12 brews available, as well as root beer, at any given time (depending on demand), there is something for every beer lover. "I think Gatecrasher, our English IPA, is the favorite in the tap room, but since we brew a variety of different types of beers, sometimes the favorites change day-to-day," Owner Josh Gilbert says. He adds that they do have a limited number of kegs available for off-site events, but they are in short supply and require advance notice.
Another option for happy hour or post-dinner nightcaps is Ward Eight, a unique and upscale bar experience located in the developing Howard Street corridor on the border of Evanston and Chicago that offers one-of-a-kind cocktails, an incredible wine list and great small plates.
Hosting An Event
Evanston’s not just about the restaurants. New, large dedicated event spaces are popping up all over the city, including at the Heartwood Center, a holistic health facility that is home to the new Skylight Event Space, which opened last October.
According to Dawn Butler, event and program director, "The venue lends itself to almost any occasion," as evidenced by the various soirees that have been hosted in the space, such as a fundraiser for the Democratic Party of Evanston, the First Annual Midwest Shiatsu Symposium, a benefit for Kurt’s Café and a Thanksgiving dinner hosted by Y.O.U.
The main event space is the 2,300-squarefoot Skylight Room, which features contemporary bamboo floors, vaulted ceilings and four skylights, allowing for a natural flow of light during the day. The room can accommodate 180 people seated or 280 in a lecture-style format. Butler adds that for those looking for alternative seating can bring in up to 100 yoga mats.
The Skylight Event Space also offers a 609-square-foot conference room for 48 seated, including a podium. Lighting is available and tables and chairs are included in the rental price. The event space also features A/V and sound equipment available for rental, four private restrooms, Wi-Fi and the use of a catering kitchen. 27 Live is a relatively new music, dining
and event venue with some of the largest event space in Evanston, including three private VIP suites for up to 25 people with a balcony view of the stage during concerts or programs.
The second floor houses the 100-person Whiskey Lounge with booths, cocktail tables, a fireplace and a unique restored Brunswick bar. As well, the main event space on the first floor can be reconfigured in numerous ways for 300 guests standing or 200 seated.
Need entertainment options? The Piccolo Theatre on Main Street, located in the Metra Station, offers group discounts for its 60-seat theater. They also manage the Evanston Arts Depot, which provides rental, meeting and studio/ performance spaces at below market rates, according to Joshua Allard, marketing manager. "Revenue generated by our programming is reinvested into community development; we provide employment and program scholarships, enhance the function of our artistic home, the historic Main Street Metra Station, and support local businesses by using them as vendors in collaborative relationships," says Allard. Which means there’s even more hope for the future of this bustling town.