Riding his bike through the Oak Park Arts District a year and a half ago, local restaurateur Craig Charlton felt an attraction to the “eclectic” area.
He admired the quirky art studios, but also longed to see the vacant store windows occupied by new retail.
Charlton, 46, has worked every position imaginable in the food industry since he was 15-from chef to dishwasher. The only area unexplored was owner, and what better place to start a new eatery than the budding Harrison business district?
A little over a month ago, Charlton and his wife Liz, 36, opened Trattoria 225-a “rustic” Italian casual restaurant-at 225 W. Harrison St.
“I think south Oak Park is a bit underserved by good restaurants,” he said. “It’s really proven to be a good choice.”
Businesses have clamored for the addition of more restaurants to the district. This would increase foot traffic, visibility and viability, they speculate.
Some questioned whether another restaurant could succeed in the area, which is still trying to find its way at times Craig said.
“I’ve always been a risk-taker, and I tried to swim upstream,” he said. “”People asked why, and I feel it’s filling a void that wasn’t there.”
After a month on Harrison, some businesses are already seeing things change for the better.
Some already reaping benefits
Pete Morava, owner of Morava Glass Studios (11 Harrison) and member of the Harrison Street Business Alliance, said the area has lobbied for new businesses and restaurants.
“This is a realization of what can be done,” he said while sitting at Trattoria 225’s bar. “Restaurants go hand in hand with an arts district. You want to see activity on this street.”
He said galleries don’t have visitors as frequently and need restaurants to help increase exposure and word-of-mouth.
His wife, Karen Morava, owner of CarefulPeach Boutique, has seen an increase in business over the month since the restaurant opened.
“A restaurant is one of those things that draws a constant stream of people, whereas, a gallery can be more sporadic,” Buzz Café owner Laura Maychruk said.
It’s too early to say what Trattoria 225’s effect will be on the neighborhood, but she has “definitely” noticed a higher draw of people in the past month.
The most important thing for the district is reaching 100 percent occupancy in all the storefronts, she said.
“Anything that brings people to the area,” said Val Camilletti, owner of Val’s halla Records, 239 Harrison. “I think it’s wonderful. The more the merrier.”
She wishes more restaurants would open, catering to the earlier crowds to bring constant visitors from dawn till dusk. Restaurants on Oak Park Avenue and Lake Street helped Val’s thrive while at its old location on South Boulevard, Camilletti said.
“I think it has definitely raised awareness of the neighborhood,” said Doris Weinbaum, owner of Bead in Hand, 145 Harrison, and treasurer of the Harrison Street Business Alliance. “The fact that it’s so popular is great for the Arts District. … All the businesses are thrilled. It’s a step towards having a nightlife.”
Clams pizza is popular
Europe has been a favorite vacation destination of the Charltons, particularly for its food. They love Italian cuisine and wanted to recreate it in their own restaurant.
Craig, also the chef, wanted his menu to be simple and straightforward: high quality ingredients, lightly seasoned and cooked in a wood burning oven (the restaurant does not have a fryer).
“I wanted the flavors to come through and speak for themselves,” he said.
“We eat this way at home,” said Liz, who teaches sixth grade in La Grange during the fall. “We believe in eating food that’s fresh and simple with flavor in the forefront.”
The menu will shift three or four times a year to go with the seasons using what’s fresh and abundant that time of year.
Between 30 and 40 percent of Trattoria 225’s sales come from their thin crust, organic, whole-wheat pizzas, cooked with oak in their oven. The most popular types are white clam pizza (topped with chopped clams, garlic, spicy red pepper and Romano cheese) and the BLT pizza (garnished with oven roasted tomato, Italian bacon, arugula and a house cheese blend).
Grilled baby octopus with olive oil, red wine vinegar, oregano and caramelized shallots is also popular, Craig said.
The Charltons purchased the storefront 18 months ago and heavily renovated it with the help of a retail rehab grant from the village of Oak Park, which matches up to a third of a new business’s rehab costs.
To match the simple, natural menu, the Charltons wanted to create an earthy, rustic atmosphere at Trattoria 225. The floors are stripped and stained maple, imperfections and all. The walls are bare brick in some areas, with a pale sunflower color in other parts. The ceilings are olive green. The 14-seat bar is a smooth colored concrete, which Craig had hand-troweled. The restaurant accommodates about 130 people.
You can see the huge wood burning oven across the restaurant when you first walk in the door. Craig said he wanted it to be the focal point of Trattoria 225. On some days, customers can sit at the concrete counter around the kitchen and watch the staff fire up their meals.
“We thought it’d be really neat to breathe new life into an old space that was really worthy of it,” Craig said of the office space, which was empty for two years.
Craig wanted to keep things affordable for families too. No appetizer is over $7 on the menu. Entrées range from $10 to $19.
The unique interior decorating goes hand-in-hand with the arts district’s creative feel. Some of local artist Lisa Nordstrom’s work from Art Gecko, Ltd., 19 Harrison, hangs on the restaurant’s art wall just inside the door. Craig said eventually other artists will get the chance to showcase their stuff on the wall. He hands out their business card at the door.
In return, the artists mention Trattoria 225.
“They talk about us, we talk about them,” he said. “It’s a mutually beneficial relationship.”
Doing business together, too
Even La Majada, the Mexican restaurant across the street at 226 Harrison, in Oak Park for 31 years, and the self-proclaimed “anchor” for the area, has a mutually beneficial relationship, even though the two eateries are jockeying for the same clientele.
Hector Haggar, president at the restaurant, said for the longest time businesses were afraid to enter the Harrison district, and he thinks Trattoria 225 entering the mix is a good sign. He believes the two restaurants will feed off each other and will mutually attract customers.
“I love the fact that I’m not here by myself,” he said. “Somebody finally decided Harrison Street is taking off.”