Chefs Matties Merges, left, and Jeff Mauro enjoy a rare, two-hour lunch at Lula, the shining example of a restaurant with staying power.
Chefs Matties Merges, left, and Jeff Mauro enjoy a rare, two-hour lunch at Lula, the shining example of a restaurant with staying power. Credit: Nick Murway

One of my first memories of Logan Square is my mother’s face as my parents drove away. We’d just moved my things into my first grown-up apartment, on Altgeld, and I stood on the stoop, waving good-bye. My mother cast a look backwards, clearly wondering if she’d ever see me again. Nights were a cacophony of car alarms. Gunshots weren’t frequent, but they certainly weren’t rare. Most of my meals came from a convenience store called TJ’s Pantry on Fullerton, prepared by the loving hands of Chef Boyardee, while my roommate seemed to subsist entirely on Starbursts and milk. Stumbling upon Lula one day, we were surely saved from slow, dyspeptic death.

THE FOOD ISSUE: Where Chicago Eats

It’s been 13 years since I first moved to Logan Square and 15 years since Jason Hammel and his wife, Amalea Tshilds, opened Lula. Once an oasis in a food desert, the eclectic all-day cafe is now the flagship of a culinary and cultural sea change. “Jason took a huge risk coming here early on,” says Matthias Merges of Yusho, a hip, yakitori-inspired spot on Kedzie that offers a selection of small plates as affordable as they are addictive. On the heels of Yusho, which opened in 2010 and quickly became a critical darling, Merges introduced Billy Sunday, just around the corner from Lula, in January. It is perhaps a testament to Merges’s reputation that Details magazine named it one of the best new bars in America weeks before Billy Sunday opened its doors, lauding the spot as “a cozy parlor in the up-and-coming Logan Square hood.”

Merges is standing in a sunny corner of Lula—in a part of the restaurant that will likely forever be called “the new side” by those who remember when Lula occupied only a single storefront—chatting with Hammel and Jeff Mauro. Mauro is the executive chef of Jam and, like Merges, a Charlie Trotter’s alum. A chef’s schedule is notoriously brutal, so to see three of them together, in relaxed conversation, is something of a unicorn. But what makes the sight truly special is the fact that these three chef/proprietors are neighbors. In an area that once had little more to offer than canned pasta and dirt-cheap Mexican food, two former Trotter’s chefs are doing business within a block of each other. And one of the main reasons that’s possible, Mauro and Merges agree, is Lula.

“Lula was a model for our original Jam,” says Mauro. Opened in 2009, the first Jam was located on Damen in the Ukrainian Village. “The food Lula was doing was made specifically for Logan Square,” Mauro continues, “and we realized the impact a restaurant could have on a community.” Lula’s original menu was a balance of straightforward cafe food and bohemian quirk. The first thing I ever ordered, a spiced peanut butter sandwich with onion and cucumber, is still available today, as is the pan-roasted chicken with potatoes. But as the neighborhood evolved, so did Lula, expanding its oeuvre to include tasting menus and more refined fare. The restaurant also works closely with local farmers, reflecting the neighborhood’s love for all things artisanal.

After experiencing considerable success in the Ukrainian Village (read: two-hour waits for a table), Jam decided to “ride the energy” and open a second location in Logan Square. But after a build-out that ran longer than planned, in part due to the fact that the building is on Logan Boulevard and has landmark status, the team decided to shutter the Damen outpost and focus all of its energy on Logan.

“The Ukrainian Village is only about two miles away but wow, what a difference in clientele,” says Mauro, digging into a bowl of spaghetti alla chittara with pork shoulder and fresh chickpeas. (“I pretty much always get the pasta when I’m able to come here—but I don’t get out much.”) Mauro and Merges have joined me for lunch while Hammel has excused himself to work. I ask what the biggest difference has been between the Ukrainian Village and Logan Square, and Mauro is unequivocal in his response.

Credit: Nick Murway

“Bacon! People here literally said, ‘We’re not coming back until you have bacon.'” Mauro honed his craft at Trotter’s, and his food is beautiful, meticulous. Bacon wasn’t on the menu because he couldn’t find a satisfactory way to do it in-house. “In the Ukrainian Village, we didn’t hear about it much. Here we were getting e-mails, handwritten letters. That’s the kind of community we’re in. They have opinions and we have to acknowledge that.”

“Yes,” adds Merges, “these are honest, sincere people. This is their neighborhood and they speak their minds.”

Jam now features a rotating selection of daily bacon.

Merges goes on: “People in Logan Square like things to be personal. Their expectations are high. This is a knowledgeable, creative group of people and they force us to be creative in turn, to adapt.”

“We make decisions collaboratively, by talking to guests and staff, getting feedback,” says Mauro. “We now know that Logan Square loves their IPA. We didn’t have a single one on the menu at first.”

I ask how much feedback the chefs are willing to accept—to what degree they’ll shape their menus to suit their diners’ taste.

“We listen but it’s important to maintain focus on your brand, on the idea that you want to get across,” Merges says. “If 100 percent of people like what you do, you’ve failed, in my mind. I’m looking more for that 80/20 split. That means what you’re doing is still edgy and interesting. There’s a creativity here that helps to foster that dynamic. Nothing’s commonplace.”

That creative atmosphere was part of what led Merges to choose Logan Square for Yusho, his first solo project after leaving Trotter’s. “People were like, ‘You mean you’re not going to open downtown?'” he recalls. “But Logan Square has a wonderful culture, a great aesthetic, and depth of character. That’s hard to find in other neighborhoods like downtown or Lincoln Park. There’s a soulfulness here.”

Mauro agrees. “Coming to Logan Square was absolutely the right decision,” he says, even while admitting to suffering some initial disappointments. Dinner service never took hold despite the success Jam had with an evening tasting menu at the original location in 2010—and despite the fact that other area restaurants like Longman & Eagle and, later, Fat Rice (not to mention Yusho and Lula) have no problem packing in the dinner crowds. “We had to stop dinner in the Ukrainian Village because I suffered, um, a catastrophic injury,” he says. (That injury was a torn ACL. Mauro is an avid hockey player, playing in three different leagues, and Merges has been gently teasing him about priorities throughout the meal.) When Jam attempted to reintroduce dinner at the new location, the business just wasn’t there.

“I don’t exactly know why,” Mauro says. “It may have been an issue of branding. People just couldn’t get past the name ‘Jam.’ But it also could have been that we were having an identity issue at dinner. First we were doing tastings, then blue plate specials. It was kind of like, ‘What the hell are we and why aren’t we telling people what we are?'”

So Jam chose to focus on the daytime business, and now operates from 7 AM to 3 PM. “If there’s an upside to being closed for dinner,” he says, “it’s that I have more time for hockey.”

Conversation turns to my tamale—a luscious slab of masa accented with spring onion and pickled cauliflower—recommended by Merges, who’d tried it a week before. “Isn’t it just wonderful?” he asks. And it is. A far cry from the simple omelets I remember once enjoying at Lula for brunch, the dish perfectly encapsulates Lula’s transformation from a neighborhood cafe to the dining destination that it is today. Lula has managed to evolve over a decade and a half—an eternity in restaurant years—while staying true to its roots, developing new concepts, and cultivating new business while maintaining the loyalty of longtime diners. That’s something that both Mauro and Merges admire and clearly aim to emulate.

“Logan Square is a city within a city,” says Merges. “It’s easy to form connections. We know people by name. And what you invest now, you’ll see the return on later.”