By Dan Haley
Monday night was the final night for La Majada, a pioneering restaurant on Harrison Street, which once had the easy panache of being Oak Park's destination spot. The Haggar family — Mom, sister, brothers — were the face of the place, welcoming, sometimes gruff, always present.
Truth is that 35 years back, the competition to be Oak Park's destination restaurant wasn't very intense. The village had just begun to allow restaurants to serve beer, wine, and, in the case of La Majada, margaritas. Dry for decades before that, Oak Park was known for hot spots such as the Cottage Cupboard (now Maya del Sol) and The Fry-er, the deep fried chicken place that preceded La Majada.
My recollection is that the Haggars started La Majada in just the single Fry-er storefront at Harrison and Harvey before they began their door-by-door march east until they had the whole half-block to the alley, taking over what had been, in my youth, Welch's Village Bakery, Frank's Barber Shop, Frank's wife's short-lived beauty salon and some sort of printing business where the windows were painted green and only on the hottest days of the summer was the front door cracked open a few inches.
La Majada was there as the rest of Harrison Street went into the crapper. The small retailers closed, the anchor Pan's grocery story departed to Oak Park Avenue, and the entire core of what we now know as the Oak Park Arts District hollowed out and disappeared into the Kleronomos family's fantasy land.
Now, after a long, unpleasant, unrelenting decline, La Majada is gone and the whole block from Lombard to Harvey is failed. Most of the block is owned by River Forest's Chris Kleronomos and now labors through a never-ending foreclosure process. The multiple buildings are either empty or underutilized, though entire facades have not crumbled off onto the sidewalk in … what? … two years. So there's that.
La Majada has been on the financial ropes for multiple years. The long string of attached dining rooms have been variously closed off like bedrooms in an aunt's oversized Victorian. A few months ago we were ready to report the story that La Majada had lost its Oak Park liquor license for non-payment of liquor taxes when some last-minute fix was found.
The Haggars, sadly, seem more ready to blame others, mainly the village, for their slow-motion decline. Truth is, this hasn't been a happy place for a long time. And the menu and the décor were stuck in the last century in a town where dining has become an adventure in fresh flavors and perpetual reinvention.
Meanwhile the family says its La Majada Express location on Lake Street in River Forest will remain open, though it sits on the end of a block destined sooner than later for total redevelopment.
The Arts District, remarkably, survives. Not sure how the east and the west wing of small galleries and odd shops makes a go of it while the heart of the district at dead center, the portion with the larger storefronts, now totally flatlines.
The village's government has sat on the sidelines of this decay for decades. To me, an observer of this activist government, it has been inexplicable. No blizzards of code violations. No property buying sprees. No strict enforcement of a vacant buildings ordinance. Just a bunch of sorry hand-wringing. If the village has been waiting for Harrison Street to hit bottom, this would appear to be it.
This street is now emptied. So what's the rejuvenated Oak Park Economic Development Corporation going to do on Harrison? What's the village government going to do? Who has a plan?
Or does this part of southeast Oak Park just not count at all?
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