Melissa Elsmo

Lately I’ve been considering what it means to be “a regular” at a local restaurant. And in turn what is means for a restaurant to be “regular-worthy.”

When I spoke to Chef Ivy Grant about Winberie’s recent closing she mentioned the restaurant suffered because it was relegated to a “special occasion” destination for local customers. She left me thinking about the important role consistent diners play in the long-term success of small businesses and just how fragile restaurant structures can be.

Its normal for new restaurants and food businesses to experience an exciting honeymoon period after opening, but what happens when that initial bliss subsides? Who sustains our local restaurants in the long run? And how can we do our best to support the restaurants we love?

A successful restaurant requires more than occasional diners and tourists to survive; regular customers form the spine of success for nearly every restaurant in the business. Only top-tier establishments with exorbitant price points can survive on first-time and one-time-only diners. The bulk of restaurateurs want nothing more than for local customers to fold their restaurant into their daily lives. Regular customers not only fill restaurants seats on a dependable timetable, they are also quick to recommend their favorite restaurant to others and in turn help build a positive reputation for the restaurant in the broader community.

When I am not busy cooking, my work pretty much requires I spread myself too thin when it comes to restaurants. If a new place opens, I need to visit right away and that makes it hard for me to become a loyal customer anywhere. Despite that fact, I have managed to become a regular at a couple of spots.

My friend Sue and I are frequent diners at BIG & Littles in Wicker Park; we visit once a month; the manager knows us by name, and we order exactly same thing every time we visit. My family rarely makes it though a weekend without breakfast from Brasas Pancake House; we always vary our order, but our dining interval is measured by days not weeks. Generally, however, I hop from place to place as food news shifts in the area.

And, heck, there’s a lot to pay attention to these days.

We’ve all got our eyes on the transition in progress at Obsessed Kitchen and sure, I’ll to be among the first to learn all about Kettlestings as they move into the space. Of course, I visited Kalamata Kitchen the week it opened for business and have been tracking Pig and Fire’s unconventional entry into the catering world.  We all see the gaping hole on the northwest corner of Oak Park Ave. and wonder what will become of the former Winberie’s restaurant space.

These are intriguing things in our little corner of the culinary world. 

Celebrating and lamenting the comings and goings of eateries in the area is surely part of paying attention to our culinary community, but sometimes we should turn our attention away from that ever-swinging pendulum; all that back and forth makes it easy to forget about the restaurants who have been hard at work, sometimes for years, to earn our regular business.

Yesterday as I stood looking at the vacant Winberie’s space, I made a conscious choice to pop into Mulata Kitchen and Coffee across the street. I was charmed by the bustle and hum inside the relatively new coffee shop and appreciated the sincere, friendly and quick service. Customers were dining alone and in groups, but more than a few folks were savoring Mulata’s Brazilian feijoada—a homey stew of black beans. Several tables were clearly enjoying a working lunch in the cheery café, while others were ordering empanadas to-go; one customer requested her empanada be served in a napkin to make it easy to eat while she walked through downtown Oak Park. Meanwhile, my friend and I enjoyed a flavorful lunch of our own at table smack in the center of the diminutive shop. I can’t say for sure how many people visiting Mulata were “regulars” versus passersby, but the whole scene felt very “regular-worthy” to me. And I will definitely be back for another bowl of lentil soup.

So, I’ve committed to visit local restaurants that have been around for a while– I’d like to check in to see how things are going and share the fare I find. Do you have a restaurant in the Oak Park, Forest Park, River Forest, Riverside, Brookfield or Berwyn communities you consider to be “regular-worthy?” Send me an email at Melissa@oakparkeats.com and I will add it to my list of places to visit.

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