Northwestern football fans have plenty of options when it comes to watching the game–any number of sports bars and student hangouts will tune their TVs to the Wildcats when the season starts next month. But until six months ago, finding more dignified surroundings was difficult. Then along came the restaurant-bar Bluestone, run by three lifelong Evanstonians and offering a menu that ranges from pizza to seafood, a laid-back waitstaff, a location convenient to the stadium, and plenty of comfy seating and overhead TVs.

“This truly is a neighborhood hangout. People bring their kids in early, and then later it gets filled with another kind of crowd,” says co-owner John Enright. “I wanted it comfortable for kids.”

That commitment to families and neighbors runs deep in Enright. For the past eight years he’s owned the Candlelite, the legendary 60-year-old restaurant on Western just a block and a half south of Howard. The dingy sign out front and the large windows covered with beer signs don’t exactly scream culinary ingenuity, but anyone who grew up in neighborhoods on either side of Howard knows about the Candlelite’s French onion soup, homemade pizzas, and chicken wings. In 1994 Enright’s cousin, Jean Dileo, the Candlelite’s owner for 15 years, offered to sell him the restaurant. Enright, who’d graduated from the University of Iowa in 1985 with a film degree, had quickly found that his part-time work for Dileo was much more interesting than his day job making commercials. When his cousin made the offer, “I didn’t give it a second, I just did it,” he says. “I kept it the same, just cleaned it up.” Getting the building up to code, installing new plumbing, and reconstructing the bar would prove good training for his future project on Central Street.

Two years ago, with family demands weighing on his time, Enright hired another Evanstonian, Tom O’Malley, to help run the bar at the Candlelite. After 15 years in the financial world, O’Malley had changed careers and was working stints at several restaurants. He was also looking for a location in Evanston to open a place of his own. “We thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to be on Central Street?'” says his wife, Sue, a former caterer turned real estate agent.

Enright agreed: the street was the perfect place for a casual yet upscale neighborhood restaurant. He signed on as a partner, and after searching the listings for a few months the three found a vacant coffeehouse that seemed to fit their needs. They closed on the space (the former Bean Counter Cafe) in February 2001 and immediately began gutting it. “We took down the ceilings, removed walls, took out the existing floor,” Enright says. “It was a lot of work.” They opened their doors two weeks before Christmas.

What newcomers to Bluestone may not realize are the subtle nods to the Candlelite: the wall of mirrors; the warm wooden booths and chairs; even the neighborly bar. And, of course, there’s the pizza. “Very few places still hand roll their ‘skins’ [thin-crust pizzas],” says Enright. You can pick among 17 toppings or order a BBQ chicken or turkey club pie. Then there’s the French onion soup, an Italian beef served on garlic bread with mozzarella cheese and giardiniera, and those addictive chicken wings–fried first, then coated in a sweet and tangy barbecue sauce. There’s also a kid’s menu.

Enright hired 38-year-old chef Andrew Meyer (“known him since he was four”), who taught at the culinary school at nearby Kendall College for four years. “I wanted good old American cookin’, nothing too fancy,” says Enright, “yet everything under $20.” In that price range there’s chicken potpie and eggplant Parmesan, beer-battered tilapia, linguine with shrimp and andouille sausage, and a New York strip steak. Enright is duly proud of the desserts–in particular the key lime pie and flourless chocolate cake, direct holdovers from the Candlelite–which he makes himself.

With all of the work he’s put into the new restaurant, you might think Enright would be phasing himself out of the Candlelite–and he did float the idea of selling it. (It’s been temporarily closed for the past month or so.) But the early success of Bluestone, along with his commitment to the old neighborhood, has changed his mind. Now he’s poised to sink money into sprucing the place up, and he’d like to keep it in the family. “I don’t want to leave behind the neighborhood that got me started. They deserve to have the Candlelite survive.”

Bluestone is at 1932 Central in Evanston, 847-424-0420. –Steve Dolinsky

The Dish

Filipino restaurant Rambutan at 2049 W. Division closed in late June and will be transformed into a sake and wine bar by Mirai Sushi owner Miae Lim….Cafe Matou owner Charlie Socher is negotiating to purchase the space at 4535 N. Lincoln now occupied by Grecian Taverna, which will close in September.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Stephen J. Serio.