A Shore Thing?

The North Pond Cafe may never be as extravagant as New York’s famed Tavern on the Green, but Chicago is about to get its own version of a quality restaurant in the park. Within the next eight weeks, the cafe should open at the north end of Lincoln Park in a brick building that originally served as a warming house for ice skaters. The new establishment is the handiwork of Rich Mott, whose University Foods operates cafes on a variety of area campuses such as the University of Chicago and Northwestern. Mott envisions the North Pond Cafe as more than a simple snack shop. He’s already hired chef Mary Ellen Diaz away from Michael Foley’s well-regarded Printers Row Restaurant in the South Loop. He’s also enlisted the services of restaurant designer Nancy Warren, whose work includes the Frontera Grill and Topolobampo in Chicago and Trio in Evanston, and he’ll sink close to $500,000 of his own money into the cafe to make it an enticing year-round attraction.

Until recently Mott and his brothers limited their food service business to universities, but the company has recently cut deals with the Chicago Park District to run the North Pond Cafe and the Jackson Harbor Grill, which opened about a month ago in an old lakefront coast guard facility at 6401 S. Coast Guard Drive. Mott says first-time visitors to the south-side restaurant are startled to discover that the area looks like a waterfront resort: “I have to twist people’s arms to get them to go, but once they do they love it.” Mott brought in chef Troy Price from Michael Jordan’s restaurant to supervise the cooking at the Jackson Harbor Grill, where the menu is heavily influenced by southern and Caribbean cuisines. The entrees range from greens with freshwater prawns to grilled cheese grits with an exotic mushroom ragout, while sandwiches include a blackened chicken focaccia and a grilled catfish.

As inviting as the Jackson Harbor Grill is, Mott hopes the North Pond Cafe will be his real gem. Various operators have tried to make a go of the location in the past, serving food only during the summer season. Mott initially picked up a five-year lease, but he recognized that the property needed a major renovation before he could open a year-round restaurant. Last summer he offered a few snack items at the site while negotiating with Park District executives; eventually they offered to extend his lease to cover a full nine years if he would foot the bill for the renovation. Mott agreed, and now the pressure’s on to prove that his investment can pay off.

Warren, who lives in Lincoln Park, thinks the North Pond Cafe can succeed if Mott provides a quality product. “Certainly there won’t be the same traffic in the winter that there is in summer,” she says, “but I think Rich’s financial projections take that into account.” Warren has designed a facility that will seat 84 people indoors at tables and banquets, and another 65 or so outside when weather permits. An area near the entrance will be devoted to take-out orders. Warren has located the kitchen and storage areas at the rear of the building so customers will have a clear view of the scenic North Pond and the Chicago skyline. What she describes as an “arts and crafts” decor will make use of natural materials in tan, burgundy, and olive green. Special heaters installed on the patio will enable customers to eat outside well into November, or even on unusually warm days in February.

CSO’s Q & A

The detailed, seven-page survey sent out last month by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra follows the latest trend in the arts world–play to the crowd. Of the 20,000 questionnaires, five-sixths were sent to CSO subscribers or recent single-ticket buyers, but the remaining sixth went to a random list of Chicagoans with no known connection to the CSO. The survey, prepared by Chicago-based Consumer and Professional Research Inc., poses a variety of questions. One section asks respondents to check off words from a long list of adjectives that describe the CSO, ranging from “behind the times” to “dull” to “glamorous” to “elitist.” Other sections ask respondents to identify CSO sponsors from a list of corporations, to evaluate aspects of CSO programming, and to identify their other leisure activities.

Susan Mathieson, marketing director for the Lyric Opera of Chicago, says she’s seldom seen an arts-oriented survey that went into this much detail: “Usually when you send out something like this you are looking for answers to particular questions.” CSO spokesman Stephen Belth responds that the survey results, which should be available by the end of the summer, will allow the CSO to “talk responsibly about our audience.” Belth denied that the results would guide music director Daniel Barenboim’s planning for future seasons. He also declined to say how many subscribers the CSO has signed up for next season, when it will unveil the $100 million Symphony Center and a significantly wider range of musical programming.

The Lyric’s Cash Cache

How does an arts organization wind up with a $650,000 surplus in this era of increasing red ink? Well, it helps to have a gala benefit where all the artists donate their performance fees. That was the case for last fall’s high-profile performance of the Lyric Opera honoring its late general director, Ardis Krainik. Most of the proceeds from that event, which wasn’t part of Lyric’s regular operating budget, fell to the bottom line and helped the company realize a substantial surplus for the fiscal year. Whether the Lyric can match that result in the upcoming season, the first under new general director William Mason, remains to be seen. But the number of subscribers has climbed from nearly 35,000 this year to approximately 38,000 for next season. At the company’s annual meeting last week Mason said his administration would focus on educational outreach.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Rich Mott and Nancy Warren photo by Randy Tunnell.