Becoming a restaurateur was far from Richard Mott’s mind back in 1981 when he was studying finance at the University of Chicago’s Graduate School of Business. As preparation for a career in corporate America, he made a bid to run a student coffee shop for a class project. “To stake out on your own–to be in business for yourself–was considered heresy in those days,” he recalls. “But I came to enjoy the independence, not having anyone tell you what to do. Besides, I figured I didn’t have to wear a suit every day.” Upon graduation Mott turned down a job in investment banking from Citicorp–he’d opened another concession on campus. Today he owns and operates a menagerie of coffee joints at local universities as well as a pair of upscale restaurants notable for their waterfront locations, North Pond Cafe and Jackson Harbor Grill.

Mott, who says he’s a hearty eater but not a foodie, branched into fine dining only two summers ago. By then his small concession empire, University Foods, had grown 20-fold in revenues, grossing millions annually and employing several hundred people. And he’d struck up a good working relationship with the Park District. “Nearly all of my concessions are for not-for-profit organizations,” he says, “six at the U. of C., a couple at Northwestern, John Marshall Law, Illinois Institute of Technology, and so forth. But mine had been a seasonal business that didn’t generate a lot of income in the summer, so I started selling hot dogs and such in the parks. And that was one reason why I decided to open these restaurants.”

Mott had his eye on two old structures–a former skaters’ shelter on the northern edge of the fish pond in Lincoln Park and a former coast guard house by the lake in Jackson Park. “I just love the tranquil park setting,” he says, “far from the crowded hubbub on Clark Street or River North or the Randolph Street corridor.” The north pond location reminded him of Tavern on the Green in New York’s Central Park, so much so that he half-jokingly suggested the name Tavern on the Pond to the Park District. “They were not amused,” he says. (Due to zoning restrictions, alcohol is served only indoors at North Pond.) He and his investors got the city’s go-ahead for both sites three years ago.

The Jackson Park guardhouse, which Mott believes was built in the early 1900s and saw its heyday in the 30s, was in decent shape. “Another restaurant had been in there, so we just upgraded the kitchen, repainted the place, put in a patio overlooking the harbor,” he says. “Because we wanted boaters who dock in the harbor to feel welcome, I envisioned it as a fun, casual restaurant that serves a lot of seafood.” When Jackson Harbor Grill opened its doors in May ’97, the menu was Cajun inspired, complete with spicy barbecue and grilled catfish. It was an immediate hit. “The setting is an obvious plus,” Mott says. “You feel you’re right in South Haven, Michigan, and not next to a busy beach.” A third of his customers arrive by boat.

Mott had hired chef Mary Ellen Diaz to concoct the menu at North Pond, which Mott calls “a wine, white tablecloth, sit-down diner.” A graduate of Le Cordon Bleu in Paris who had worked in the kitchens of the Ritz-Carlton and Printer’s Row, Diaz believes in fresh, organically grown ingredients. “I was spoiled by Paris,” she says, “shopping for meat and vegetables every day at farmers’ markets. So I brought this culinary philosophy–the idea of a sustainable nature–back, and it influences my selection of ingredients and the way I cook.” Last spring, impressed by her penchant for imaginatively eclectic dishes, Mott asked her to revamp the fare at the more laid-back Jackson Harbor. “I thought of this book I just read, If I Can Cook/You Know God Can” by Ntozake Shange, Diaz recalls, “and I was struck by her advice to mix and match, to be inspired by a traditional cuisine but not to copy it.” She decided to use the flavors of Latin America as her model.

Popular appetizers at Jackson Harbor include mussels steamed in a spicy gruel of watercress, leeks, and garlic and what Diaz calls a “fun presentation” of stuffed crab cakes dipped in a watermelon salsa. She likes to garnish dishes with tropical fruits: bits of papaya accompany grilled calamari quesadillas; pineapple vinaigrette is used in the grilled shrimp salad; another salad comes with mango dressing. Among the entrees is a version of feijoada, a pork stew that originated in west Africa and is regarded as Brazil’s national dish; Diaz’s is peppered with crushed pistachio nuts. Tilapia, a thick-textured fish–organically raised, of course–is grilled and served with roasted yuca and a pineapple-mustard sauce. A side dish called “voodoo greens” refers to vegetables steamed in Dixie Voodoo lager. For dessert, Diaz offers her exemplary versions of coconut and Key lime pies.

On a recent Saturday, a stream of visitors disembarked boats moored nearby, including a party of three casually dressed young women who hitched their dinghy to the pier and strolled to the waiting queue. “Jackson Harbor isn’t as expensive as you might imagine, given the food,” Mott says. “The average dinner tab is around $20, whereas you should expect to spend more than $40 at North Pond. We’re so happy with the turnout this summer that we’ve decided to stay open all year round. Just think, where else can you have a spectacular view of the lake in winter?”

Jackson Harbor Grill, 6401 S. Coast Guard Drive, is open for lunch and dinner every day except Monday. Call 773-288-4442. –Ted Shen

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