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Seven days a week from 7 a.m. until 10 p.m., Patrick and Olya Dailey are at work cooking and serving up their favorite homespun American and European-inspired drinks, dishes and desserts from an open kitchen behind the counter in the rezoned, retooled two-bedroom garden apartment of their mixed-use apartment building at 102 Harrison St. (near Lyman Ave.) in Oak Park.
In the past three years, Eastgate Cafe, Books and Gifts has become a local fixture, offering food, an array of hostess gifts, coffee table books and even wine at reasonable prices. It is tucked away a couple of blocks west of Austin Boulevard in the midst of house boutiques, eateries, art galleries and other small businesses that have come to define the Oak Park Arts District.
This year, in spite of the downturning economy, Eastgate's owners are optimistic about what lies ahead. The Daileys serve up breakfast, lunch, dinner, and on the weekend, a Sunday brunch, says Patrick. His affable, over-the-top approach to customer service is his m.o. So get ready to be warmly greeted, smiled at a lot, and when appropriate, chatted up.
Since its opening in June 2008, word on the street has been gaining, and some customers have penned their praise on the Internet via websites like Yelp: "This place rocks," writes Kathy R. of Highland Ind. "I have a shop in the Oak Park Arts District a block away. Some days I practically live there. If I'm in the money on a given week, I will forget the grocery store and have them prepare all my food. My big fave is the steak."
So it goes for Patrick and Olya, who have been married now for 18 years, and were hungry to open a restaurant together since they first met.
"Nobody expects a garden apartment to be a business, but it seemed like the right thing to do," says Olya, who was born in Belgrade and has been in this country for 22 years. "We gutted and upgraded the kitchen and brought it up to code for a commercial space."
The beams and lighting were upgraded, too, and parking was already available, she points out.
Opening the gate
About a decade ago, Village of Oak Park trustees concurred that Harrison Street and the Oak Park Avenue/Eisenhower business districts were best suited to undergo a study conducted by University of Illinois-Chicago urban planning students. Once completed, the UIC study indicated that Harrison Street was an "east gate" to Oak Park (hence, the name, says Patrick). Every day, about 10,000 cars travel along Harrison Street between Ridgeland Avenue and Austin Boulevard.
"Back then what they were proposing for Harrison Street was this," says Patrick, who grew up near Manhattan (Illinois, not New York), "mixed-use and commercial buildings which would support residential and commercial growth. In the beginning, up to now and in the future, it is the right time to do just about anything on Harrison Street. We said, 'Well, we want a restaurant. We always have. So let's do it here.'"
Two months after they opened in the summer of 2008, the economy crashed. Happily, since then, business has continued growing bit by bit — but not to their expectations and not without extending the hours they would be open, to catch the late-night dinner crowd, he says. The Daileys, who own the building, have been working longer and harder to enable their small business to weather the economic storm.
Initially, they thought they would come up with the idea and someone else would operate the restaurant, bookstore and gift shop, "but the village would not have changed the zoning, or helped us, if we were not going to be the owners," Patrick says.
"I didn't realize that early on," says Patrick, "but it has worked for us."
Recently a few of their employees have shown an interest in learning more about the culinary biz and now sometimes cook, but the couple still does the bulk of it, creating menu items and specials that they themselves like to eat and drink. Or they add to the evolving menu based on a customer's request: specialty coffees, teas, homemade soups, salads and sandwiches, including steak and pulled pork.
They also bake a crowd-pleasing blueberry muffin, as well as other European-inspired pastries, such as croissants and fresh baked cookies, including macaroons. They make more as they sell.
"We started by serving salads, sandwiches, things like that," Patrick says. "Simple things. Real food. Then we realized that people wanted more."
A "casually elegant" dinner can cost about 10 bucks, or less, and for two sawbucks, Patrick will serve up a premium sirloin steak dinner with all the fixings, Olya adds.
Being Eastern European, Olya enjoys making her Yugoslavian grandmother's goulash recipe, which she shares with customers when they ask. Another ethnic specialty is her Hungarian sausage, with its distinctive flavor, featuring a subtle mix of spices, the most prominent being paprika. Lasagna and a breakfast quiche are two more homemade meal options, and, recently, when a customer requested they start making stuffed peppers, Olya decided to add it in as a cooler weather daily or weekend special.
In addition, since Eastgate is an all-in-the-family kind of place, their 9-year-old son, Allen, has become the head dishwasher, grass cutter and window cleaner, note his parents with a laugh.
Off the menu
Throughout the year on any given day, a gaggle of informal community groups gather here — knitters, book-clubbers, church-goers and political action types in need of a local place to meet and nosh.
"Every age, every race, every nationality of people come here," says Patrick. "They just like it. I don't know if it has anything to do with Harrison Street, but there are so many things here."
From the start, the Daileys have made a conscious effort to collaborate with other local businesses in the area, including House Red in Forest Park, with whom they offer three to four wine tasting/dinner events a year. At 5 p.m. on the second Sunday of every month, the Oak Park Writers Group stages an Open Mic Night, an artistic endeavor where everyone is invited to join in.
Likewise, three Thursdays a month at 7 p.m., up to 25 people from metro Chicago gather to strum ukuleles and sing along with a growing group of friends. Gigi Wong, the organizer and leader, says her Ukulele Meet-Up Group, formerly the Harrison Street Ukulele Players, started gathering at Eastgate two months after it opened. Her business, Wonderwall Music Shop and Emporium, is located just up the street. Wong and Olya share the same birthday and year, so they struck up the synergy early on.
"Eastgate was a new location, and I thought, 'Let's link up with a new business like ourselves and see what we can do together,'" Wong recalls.
On those Thursday nights, people have dinner or just something to drink and listen to the musicians.
"It's so popular, it's often difficult to find a spot because the Ukulele Meet-Up Group has become so well known in the Chicago metro area," Olya says.
Meanwhile, most every Saturday night, between 6 and 10 p.m., Eastgate hums with free live acoustic music, delivered by a bevy of local musicians ranging from jazz saxophonist Mike Levin to writer-musician George Bailey and Mike Casey of the Sag Valley Boys Bluegrass Band to name a few. Artists from outside the area play there, too.
The Daileys say they love living and working on Harrison Street and are optimistic about the coming months and years. But sooner than later they would like to see the Oak Park Arts District officially acknowledged on a map, rather than being an art district in name only. They say the continued development of the area is critical: five or six more boutiques, three more restaurants, more chairs outside, as well as dressing up the streetscape with more decorative pavers and flowers. And, of course, more people need to be able to leave the highway, park their cars and walk up Harrison Street to Oak Park Avenue.
The sputtering economy, unfortunately, is not encouraging that growth — at least not yet.
Even so a new venue, Open Door Theater, is on deck to open this fall, which for the neighborhood is very exciting, the Daileys say.
"This is not a Starbucks or Panera Bread or even a Buzz Café," says Olya, who sits on the Oak Park Arts District board. "We are a European bistro that serves wine and beer.
French and American music from the 1950s plays in the background, people relax, sitting alone reading a book or with a friend having a chat.
"Our customers are having family parties here, baby showers and small reunions because we have set it up like a living room bistro," she says.
"And the smells of the kitchen fills it, which is very nice," Patrick adds, as he leaves the conversation with a pad in hand to take another order.