Jody Andre’s mother was appalled when her daughter decided to ditch her career in advertising to open a restaurant. “My mom said, ‘What makes you think you can take this nasty space and turn it into a successful restaurant? Do you know what that costs?'” Andre replied, “Mom, I was a tomboy growing up, I can figure out how to do this.”

Ever since Andre managed a restaurant during journalism grad school at Ohio University in the mid-80s, she daydreamed about owning her own place. Instead she went into advertising, first in New York and then in Chicago, where she was a creative director at Price Waterhouse. Burned-out after eight years in the business, she opted out in 1995.

She and her friends loved Andersonville and its Mediterranean and Swedish restaurants, but always felt it could use a spot with more of “an American flair.” After a year of searching, she decided on a dingy space on Clark Street.

To save money, Andre and Nicole Parthemore, then a student at the Cooking and Hospitality Institute of Chicago, decided to do most of the renovating themselves. They tore down the plaster walls by hand, only to find another layer of drywall, which they attacked with a hand chisel. Finally, after months of labor and a solid three weeks devoted solely to hauling out the debris, they unveiled the original brick. Next, with dreams of hardwood, they tackled the floor. One side was salvageable, but the other half had to be tiled over. Tearing through the ceiling revealed a classic drop tin ceiling, requiring only a layer of paint. A new facade and an entirely new kitchen completed the overhaul.

Tomboy opened to crowds in November 1996. “I never realized we’d be that busy. We thought it would be a small neighborhood place,” says Andre. While she originally planned to cater to a mainly female clientele, the patrons are pretty diverse.

Parthemore moved on to open a catering company after finishing her culinary studies and was replaced by chef Linda Raydl, a 12-year veteran who had acted as a consultant on kitchen operations during Tomboy’s early months. Raydl tweaks the menu by holding a complimentary tasting of a dozen or so new dishes about every six months; tasters–patrons and friends who are “as objective as possible”–jot down their opinions.

Several dishes, like the pork chop served with apple-onion confit and a baked potato with Gorgonzola sour cream ($17) and the filet mignon with crispy anna potatoes and grilled asparagus ($20), have remained on the menu since opening day. Regulars know that the signature dish, grilled peppercorn-crusted yellowfin tuna steak served with wasabi mashed potatoes, grilled pineapple, and asparagus ($21), doesn’t appear on the menu but is always available as a special. Summer pasta dishes include a few lighter options: garlic herb gemelli tossed with sauteed prosciutto and peas in a red pepper cream sauce, and udon noodles with sauteed vegetables in a ginger soy sauce, both $13. Appetizers are perhaps the most intriguing options: “porcupine shrimp” are four plump shrimp coated in thin strips of phyllo, deep-fried, then served with a savory blueberry sauce and a tangy peach-melon relish ($8); and surprisingly good escargot is elegantly served in garlic-shallot butter topped with lemon-zest crumbs ($7).

Despite lacking a liquor license–or perhaps because of it–Tomboy consistently attracts large parties, creating the festive atmosphere Andre intended. “I want to provide an entire dining experience; a clubby, New Yorky restaurant where people come to have fun. Dining doesn’t always have to be stoic. The music and food here get people’s adrenaline flowing.”

Tomboy, 5402 N. Clark, is open for dinner Sunday through Thursday, 5 to 10, and Friday and Saturday, 5 to 11. Call 773-907-0636 for reservations.

–Laura Levy Shatkin

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Jody Andre photo by Eugene Zakusilo.