Starbucks follows a simple dictum of expansion: If an indie coffee shop can survive in an area, one of its chain outlets can thrive. For as long as Jerry Kleiner has been opening KDK restaurants with business partner Howard Davis (which has been 17 years), he has been the barometric mom-and-pop coffee shop, the urban pioneer paving the way for a flood of restaurants that will surely follow. KDK kick-started what’s now “Restaurant Row” along Randolph with Vivo in 1991. They gave the South Loop Gioco, then Opera, before the Sheetrock dust had even settled during the area’s condo craze at the turn of this millennium. And now, with Park 52, KDK has brought midscale dining to Hyde Park, an area long underserved when it comes to both booze and food—that is, unless you’re content with cafeteria-style dining or a surplus of mediocre Creole/Caribbean-tinged eateries.
Apparently Hyde Park locals aren’t, because they’re already packing the tables at Park 52, a high-ceilinged room with trademark Kleiner flair--—the Marché/Red Light/Room 21/Carnivale look that requires deep red velvet hanging somewhere, cushy jewel-toned banquettes and chairs, oversized hanging light fixtures, ornate gilded frames encasing mirrors or random images of classic Hollywood starlets or fashionistas…it looks like Dame Edna’s closet and a Cirque du Soleil set collided. Regardless, it’s a swank-night-out for the area, and diners are dressing the part. The crowd of well-heeled locals is one of the most diverse I’ve seen in an midscale Chicago restaurant, so perhaps Park 52 can help desegregate the city one seating at a time. Kleiner altruistically intended this, just as he orchestrates a mixed crowd at his annual (and literal) Black & White Party.
So Park 52 is good for the neighborhood in the sense of fostering community and yadda, yadda, yadda…how’s the food? Average. It’s understandable that the menu of familiar favorites is an effort not to polarize diners, but at least roast the chicken to perfection, grill the steak to a juicy medium-rare, give the ribs some flavorful kick. As is, there’s little about the food that stands out enough to warrant a visit from diners who don’t live in the area. And if those who do visit are lulled into a coma with options like blue cheese–dressed iceberg wedge, Caesar salad and roasted whitefish, they should dine only on the verbal specials instead. At least here you get the sense that there’s actually a chef somewhere (his name is Chris Barron, by the way) and that he gets that this time of year is great for breakfast radishes, asparagus, lamb and soft-shell crabs. All four spring ingredients pop up in what turn out to be the best dishes of our visits.
Aside from the aforementioned problems (the chicken was fine but not great, the flat-iron steak was overcooked and tough, the ribs were indeed falling off the bone but desperately needed salt and some heat), the dishes that were good were just that: good. And simply “good” isn’t where you want to be when you know at least a handful of restaurants will soon follow hot on your heels.