Cafés and sandwich shops. For most, this sums up Hyde Park’s culinary offerings. Yet when Jerry Kleiner opens the long-anticipated 1. Park 52, people will surely wonder if Hyde Park is the next neighborhood to feel the Kleiner effect (see Randolph Row and South Loop for evidence). Yet for those familiar with the area, Hyde Park is already home to some pretty good eats—you just need to know where to look.
Start your Hyde Park adventure off with a stop at 2. Valois (1518 E 53rd St, 773-667-0647). The cafeteria-style restaurant was the basis for Slim’s Table, a U. of C. sociology doctoral thesis–turned-book, which documents the stories of the neighborhood men who met everyday at the local stalwart. Despite a remodel in 2001, the restaurant has lost none of its charm. A diner-perfect greasy breakfast of eggs, hash browns, toast and coffee won’t set you back more than $6.
From there, cut across several tree-lined blocks to 57th Street, where it seems bookstores outnumber sit-down restaurants. Head east to 3. Istria Café (1520 E 57th St, 773-955-2556), nestled under the Metra station. The café features free Wi-Fi, panini and masterfully brewed Intelligentsia coffee, but the real draw is the creamy gelato, which is made fresh on-site. Traditional flavors like chocolate, hazelnut and pistachio mix with more intriguing selections like a juicy white peach and intense blueberry.
Enjoy the gelato as you stroll down 57th and then head north on Woodlawn until you hit 53rd Street, where you’ll find 4. Hyde Park Produce (1226 E 53rd St, 773-955-4922), which recently moved out of its tiny storefront and into the prominent spot previously occupied by the 53rd Street Co-Op. An expanded produce section is one of the highlights of the new HPP; the other is a full-service deli that stretches across the back of the store. An awning above the glass case reads WELCOME…TO OUR DREAM, and it’s pretty much a dream for foodies, as well. Despite the tempting blocks of briny feta, gleaming piles of fresh produce and extensive selection of Italian-brand groceries, the real must-have is the deli’s housemade guacamole.
Across the street is 5. Third World Café (1301 E 53rd St, 773-288-3882), whose coffee tends to be some combination of at least two of the following: organic, fair trade and South American. Blueberry muffins, baked daily, are a favorite of those who come to take advantage of the free Wi-Fi and comfortable chairs.
Heading east, you’ll hit 6. Veggies To Go (1375 E 53rd St, 773-667-8344); think vegetarian Subway. If the smells drifting westward from Ribs N Bibs tempt you, you’re in the wrong place. If they disgust you, you’re probably the type who would appreciate Veggies To Go’s meat-free Philly cheese steaks and gyros. Alternatively, grab a snack at 7. Rajun Cajun (1459 E 53rd St, 773-955-1145), one of the neighborhood’s oddest and most enduring restaurants. Half Indian food (that’s the “Rajun” part), half soul food (the “Cajun”), the menu at this small, brightly colored spot includes both crispy fried and tandoori chicken, as well as a full selection of sides, including mac and cheese, corn muffins, saag paneer and samosas.
A strip mall is one of the last places you’d think to look for classic French restaurants, but tucked into a southern edge of the mall on Lake Park and 55th Street sits 8. La Petite Folie (1504 E 55th St, 773-493-1394). Le Cordon Bleu (and U. of C.) grad Mary Mastricola whips up tempting French fare, like medallions of venison in a green peppercorn sauce and tender salmon in a light puff pastry. The food is traditional but with subtle modern updates—and it’s delicious.
If all that sounds a little formal, then head to 9. Chant (1509 E 53rd St, 773-324-1999), the recently opened pan-Asian lounge that has succeeded in reminding Hyde Park residents that exposed brick, chic cocktails and a 1am weekend closing time aren’t exclusive to the North Side. The curried chicken is fragrant, tender and filling without being overly rich, while the sesame-crusted salmon is wild-caught, certainly a bonus for the price ($13), and comes served with a lovely white wine–and–soy butter sauce.
Finish up your tour with a trip to the 10. Checkerboard Lounge (5201 S Harper Ave, 773-684-1472) for some music and a couple of drinks. The legendary Checkerboard relocated to Hyde Park from Bronzeville three years ago, and despite its location in a ritzier part of town, the club is still intent on providing the blues to the locals—even those whose idea of the blues involves midterms.