Two of Oak Park's pioneering hot spots - Philander's and Erik's Deli - fell in recent years out of their once-hot orbits. Their inventive, even visionary, owners had all moved on. And Generation Three owners weren't cutting the mustard.
Just how visionary did a restaurant owner have to be in Oak Park in the 1970s and '80s? Consider for a moment that Oak Park had been dry for nearly 100 years. The absence of alcohol had put a gigantic crimp in Oak Park's dining experience. That's why Oak Park had virtually no restaurants. One that I remember was called the Cottage Cupboard. It reeked of quaint. This spot, now stylishly occupied by the flair of Latin fusion that's Maya del Sol, specialized in cottage cheese and melba toast, as I recall.
It was officially bleak.
So along came Dennis and Bunny Murphy, best known at that point for having created the first genuine food-related energy in the village in decades when they opened Murphy's Off-the-Mall on Marion Street. They served up steaming cheeseburgers and other such fare. It was a sensation in a sensation-deprived era.
Farther down on Marion Street, in the fusty old Carleton Hotel, the Murphys then brought us Philander's, the village's first show of fine dining - a restaurant complete with a full liquor license. That was 30 years ago.
Erik's Danish Delicatessen came to Oak Park Avenue in the early 1980s. It was the casual family-friendly offshoot of the elegant Nielsen's Restaurant on North Avenue in Elmwood Park. Nielsen's, since bulldozed and replaced by Binny's Beverage Depot, specialized in Swedish dishes and was the spot you went for anniversaries or when company arrived on a jet plane from out of town after having called you via long distance.
The owner was a distinguished gentleman from River Forest. Erik Jensen looked good in a suit and he was an early investor in this newspaper. That made him one of the 60 or so people of that era who had a thousand bucks they could afford to lose if the paper went down the drain, as it very nearly did. Repeatedly.
Erik had hired a happening young Dane named Anders Jensen. No relation as I recall. Anders first updated the mother ship on North Avenue and then created the deli in an old independent grocery story on The Avenue. Erik's Deli was an immediate smash catering, sort of like The Buzz does today, to different crowds different parts of the day. It was filled with moms and strollers late morning, local business folks at noon, high schoolers after the afternoon bell, and families crowded in for dinner. Long lines and great service in an informal setting made it unlike anything Oak Park had ever seen.
Times change. Fine dining and heavy wood paneling lost their allure at Philander's. And multiple owners later, Erik's became the most tired restaurant ever seen. In last week's paper, the current owner said the place even depressed him.
The good news is that Philander's has been re-imagined and re-launched as Barclay's (an appropriate evolution that still honors local historical photographer and total eccentric Philander Barclay). Had dinner there Sunday and it was just wonderful. The food, the service, the updated setting are all great.
And, after the new year, Erik's Deli will close for a major overhaul and reinvention. The owners say two months. Experience says it'll take them three. If they come close to the home run that Barclay's has hit, Oak Park will have effectively scored two new restaurants.