Real estate and restaurant folk have always stressed the three keys to success: location, location, location. But a number of successful restaurants run counter to conventional wisdom. Gordon Sinclair opened his restaurant Gordon 18 years ago on what was then a grungy strip of Clark Street, just north of the river; Gordon proved so popular it helped upgrade the entire area. A few years back Jimmy Rohr opened Jimmy’s Place, a citadel of haute cuisine, on a desolate stretch of Elston Avenue near Belmont; Jimmy’s Place is still the only fine restaurant in the vicinity, but gourmet diners continually beat a path to its door.

In 1988 chef Emilio Gervilla started his own little place in an even more obscure location: across from a cemetery in west-suburban, known-for-nothing Hillside. The portly, cherub-faced Gervilla admits that money was the reason for its suburban location. “I didn’t have the funds to open a restaurant in the city,” he says. But Hillside?

To make his success even less likely, Gervilla was then a relative pioneer in offering tapas–the “little dishes” of Spain–which were fast becoming popular in the city but had not yet become a national fad. He offered more than 30 hot and cold tapas plus a dozen other Spanish classics. Soon both urbanites and suburbanites made Emilio’s Tapas Bar a critical and popular hit.

The tapas idea was a natural for Lincoln Park when Rich Melman and Gabe Sotelino opened Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba in 1985 with Gervilla as its head chef. Grazing was in, and tapas were the perfect grazing food, though Spanish cuisine had yet to catch on here. Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba, through Melman’s promotion and Gervilla’s cooking, became a wildly successful spot.

But the Spanish-born Gervilla yearned for his own place, as he had throughout his youth in Granada, where he did chores in his grandfather’s bakery and tapas bar. He split from the Melman operation after three years, apparently under unpleasant circumstances that resulted in his purging the gig from his official resume.

These days Gervilla has become a mini-Melman himself. The year after he opened his Hillside place, he joined Steve Byrne to start the French-styled Bistro Banlieue in Lombard (he later bailed out, though Byrne continues to run the restaurant). In 1990 he opened another tapas bar, Emilio’s Meson Sabika in Naperville. By late 1992 he cloned himself again with Emilio’s La Perla del Mediterraneo in Hillside, featuring live entertainment and a slightly different menu. After a year-and-a-half breather, he launched Emilio’s Granada in far-west Geneva. Since no one else could come close to claiming the throne, he crowned himself the “Tapas King.” Finally he was rich enough to return to the city.

This September Gervilla took over what used to be Ti Amo, at Clark and Fullerton, only a few blocks from Ba-Ba-Reeba. He remodeled the space and called it–with no attempt at either modesty or originality–Emilio’s Tapas.

The new place opens at a time when tapas bars seem to be everywhere. The concept has even been expanded beyond serving Spanish cuisine. The Santa Fe Tapas Bar in Lincoln Park makes contemporary Tex-Mex little dishes; Tuttaposto does the trick with pan-Mediterranean food (as did Ti Amo); the Mambo Grill serves Latino tapas; and Bossa Nova has drawn from all around the world. Another traditional tapas place, Gypsy Cove, opened this summer at Clark and Belmont.

Gervilla has entered the fray hoping there’s always room for a good restaurant. A jolly fellow given to wildly patterned clothing–right down to his trousers–Gervilla is not just a fine cook. He’s a great all-around restaurateur, maintaining high quality throughout each and every place he owns. Our visits to his new Lincoln Park location proved the point. Its menu is as wide-ranging as the original Hillside spot’s, and almost every item’s a winner as prepared by Mexican-born chef Crispin Plata, a longtime Gervilla disciple.

From the 18 items our little dining group sampled, the plump, fresh chilled shrimp with three sauces–brandy, cumin, and aioli–was a standout ($7.95 for four). Other top tapas were the rich, tuna-laced potato salad ($3.50) and chicken breast with curried mayonnaise ($5.50). Marinated octopus with sherry vinaigrette ($4.95) was both tender and flavorful. Tissue-thin raw tenderloin with tomato and capers was tender but surprisingly flat tasting ($5.95).

Among the hot dishes, we liked best the escargot immersed in a heady dollop of garlic mayonnaise and perched atop croutons ($4.95). A combination of blood sausage and grilled chorizo ($3.95) was especially savory, nicely balanced off by a platter of mixed grilled vegetables with a touch of sherry vinaigrette ($4.95). None of us particularly cared for the fresh but uninteresting grilled oysters with cracked pepper ($6.95), though most of us are oyster lovers.

Entrees come in small or large portions. A cazuela (clay cooking pot) of lovely angel-hair pasta was topped with a peppery batch of shellfish, though the spice was a bit overdone ($6.95/$11.95). A salmon fillet was relatively bland, but the diced tomatoes and aioli sauce helped elevate it ($6.95/$13.95). Two meaty winners were chunks of grilled pork tenderloin in garlic sauce ($6.95/$13.95) and–even better–grilled veal with an amontillado sherry sauce, which was served with sauteed spinach, red pepper, onion, and mushrooms ($7.95/$15.95). Three yums, as our friend Henry would say.

An irresistible dessert is the profiteroles: ice cream inside a puff pastry, slathered with a rich chocolate sauce ($4.50).

All but the truly hungry couple can comfortably get by with, say, three tapas plus an entree (decide after tapas whether you need the large portion). There’s also a good selection of wines by the glass at Emilio’s Tapas, 444 W. Fullerton. Open Monday-Thursday 5-10 PM; Friday-Saturday 5-11 PM; closed Sunday. Call 327-5100.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Robert Drea.