Tim Cottini in the backyard that will soon be a steakhouses patio.
  • Michael Gebert
  • Tim Cottini in the backyard that will soon be a steak house’s patio

It used to be that every neighborhood had its share of regular-guy steak houses—supper-club-type places where you could take your lady out to get cocktails and a pretty good steak in a grown-up atmosphere, without going downtown and spending the down payment on a new Buick. In Lincoln Square that place was Jury’s, for instance. But—as my deliberately retro description suggests—those places have mostly died out on the north side, replaced by sports bars or other more casual concepts. If you want that steak-house experience now, you practically have to go downtown and deal with the parking, the traffic, and the baller prices. Tim Cottini, chef at Lincoln Square’s farm-to-table family restaurant Fork, says, “A lot of the people in this neighborhood—which is an absolute gem of a neighborhood—don’t have that anywhere around here. You look at what everyone’s doing, everyone’s doing the gastropub, small-plate concept. We’re going to be bucking that trend.”

Cottini and I are at the Julius Meinl at Montrose and Lincoln, and we’ve just come from the space a couple of doors down that he and the owners of Fork, David and Paula Byers, plan to turn into a yet-unnamed cozy, neighborhood steak house. The building itself sums up the evolution of the neighborhood—most recently it was the casual farm-to-table place Homegrown, but the same owner had the better-remembered Chalkboard in the same space—and in the 90s it had been the French restaurant Tournesol, arguably the first really modern and upscale place to come to a neighborhood that now is home to hot foodie stops like Elizabeth, Goosefoot, and Gather.

So opening a steak house might seem to be bucking the trend, but you could say it’s actually (as William F. Buckley would have put it) standing athwart history, yelling “stop!” For instance, Cottini talks about bringing back the table-side Caesar salad, a staple of midcentury Chicago dining at places like Don Roth’s. Besides being entertainment, that salad preparation seems perfectly in tune with artisanal dining today since it represents something scratch-made fresh from real ingredients. He also talks about having a cocktail cart or a carving table roaming the restaurant for table-side service.

But hints of a retro feel are only part of the story—Fork under Cottini has long been dedicated to buying from local farmers and the Lincoln Square Farmers Market. He says: “We’ll be looking to get larger primal cuts from local producers” for butchering in house, as opposed to boxed, commodity beef. “One of [our producers] will be Meyer, out of Colorado. Their meats are absolutely incredible, not necessarily a prime grade, more of a choice, but the marbling and flavor on them is there. We look to do a little dry aging in house, with the cool air and the salt blocks, and hopefully we’ll develop a reputation for our cuts. It’s going to be a lot of learning on the go, so to speak—the last thing you want to do is get thousands of dollars of meat in house that isn’t going to move.”

Turf must have surf, so Cottini has similarly sustainable ideas for that side of the menu: “We’re going to be focused on bringing in sustainable seafood, focusing a lot on the Great Lakes and things like that. We started using Amazing Shrimp [at Fork]; it’s farm raised just outside Gary, Indiana, it’s hormone and antibiotic free—the flavor of the shrimp is absolutely incredible.” Unlike a lot of steak houses, one thing Cottini says this one won’t do is blow off the vegetable side of the menu with a plate of steamed broccoli or creamed spinach. “These days, you have to something for the vegetarians, some gluten-free options, or a large party won’t come to your restaurant.” He buys vegetables from Nichols, Klug, and other familiar farmers’ market names, and his kitchen at Fork is used to offering or improvising vegetarian variations of their dishes (or entirely new ones).

Cottini walked me through the space, which still has a giant chicken painted on the wall from Homegrown. The centerpiece of the relatively small kitchen (not unlike all Chicago kitchens) will be a wood-burning grill with vertically adjustable grills on a pulley system. The bar will be extended, and the dining room will have two sections, one with standard tables, the other with cozier banquette seating. The backyard will become a covered patio—”I can’t say year-round in Chicago, but an extended season,” he says.

If Cottini stresses the neighborliness in the place, which he says they hope to open by fall, it’s partly because he is a neighbor. Though he lives in Edgewater now, he says, “My family’s from this neighborhood. My father used to be a bus boy when he was in his teens over at Laschet’s,” a long-running German restaurant and tavern on Irving Park. “Looking back on that, that was a big steak-and-seafood place back in the day, selling lobsters and whole roasted fish.” Cottini went to Kendall College and worked for Lettuce Entertain You under Christian Eckmann at Ambria in its last couple of years before the space was turned into L2O. He was the chef of Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba when he decided to downshift his life, and was lured to Fork by Byers (with whom he’d worked at North Pond years before).

There will be higher-end options, but the prices will be suited to a neighborhood restaurant—even as the neighborhood’s residents have been increasingly willing to pay for quite upscale meals. “One thing my former employers at Lettuce always said was, restaurants drive the neighborhood,” he says. “If you have good restaurants, retail kind of spawns off of that. If you look at our Saturday and Sunday brunches at Fork, we’re bringing six to seven hundred people to the neighborhood, which in turn trickles off to retail shops in the neighborhood, going to movies after, all of that. As the restaurants come in and grow, the neighborhood grows.”