It’s been five years since a fleet of ambulances pulled up near the intersection of Lincoln, Fullerton, and Halsted to begin relocating the 170 patients at Children’s Memorial Hospital to the new Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago. While the move to Streeterville provided patients and their families with access to state-of-the-art facilities, the loss of such a major neighborhood presence was bittersweet for local restaurant owners who counted on the hospital’s employees and patients to patronize their Lincoln Park businesses.
The hospital was a member of the Lincoln Park community for 130 years. But many locals, including Pam Rose, owner of Swirlz Cupcakes, were thrilled by the move. Patients with access to better resources usually see better care. But the shutter had the potential to be devastating for her business with fewer people around to buy cupcakes. She’s operated Swirlz for 11 years at Belden and Lincoln, giving hospital workers and patients a sweet escape from health care-related stress.
“At that time — between DePaul and the hospital — this area had 4,500 people a day on campus,” Rose said. “When the hospital moved, we went from 4,500 a day to zero.”
In the aftermath of the relocation, a number of restaurants and bars closed including Costello’s Sandwiches, America’s Dog, and John Barleycorn. Many more struggled to stay afloat. Still, the area’s central location, community vibe, and the promise of redevelopment on the grounds of Children’s Memorial — a 6.04-acre multi-use project called Lincoln Common — attracted new businesses. Leopoldo “Dino” Taccogna opened La Crosta Woodfire Pizzeria Italiana with his father in November 2015. Brothers Johnny and Nick Anastopoulos opened Johnny’s Beef and Gyros in August 2013. A family-friendly patio, and family recipes developed by their father and grandfather have helped boost their popularity among DePaul University students and faculty, local families, and the Lincoln Park bar crowd.
“Part of our strategy coming in was obviously [Lincoln Common] isn't going to happen for a while, but this is a very happening area,” Johnny Anastopoulos said. “You have DePaul very close by, so we're involved with the school. We do donations, flyers, and stuff, but because they are on trimesters, every few months they disappear. It’s constantly up and down.”
Demolition crews have razed the hospital and plans for redevelopment were delayed due to lawsuits and community concerns. That only prolonged the struggles of local restaurants. The parcel is currently vacant with winds swirling debris in the air. Construction finally began this year, and the development won’t be finished until 2019.
“I certainly think if the hospital was still here things would be different, but things change,” Anastopoulos said. “We have to adjust and make people happy, and hopefully grow regular customers out of it. It will be interesting to see how things develop.”
La Crosta’s atmosphere, patio, wine bar, and upscale menu (featuring burrata flown in weekly from Italy), has helped develop a following. That’s helped Taccogna keep positive: “The people I've gotten to know over the last year and a half have been so supportive. and they have been pushing me to do well all the time,” he said.
While the construction delay caused every nearby restaurant to explore different ways to reach diners, for Swirlz it also led to a new side of the business. Rose approached Whole Foods about a partnership. Starting with the suburban Willowbrook store, Swirlz cupcakes are now carried in 28 Whole Foods locations. They’ll soon be available in Indiana and Wisconsin markets as well. Rose also has plans to open a 400-square foot walk-up window at Lincoln Common. Swirlz’s Belden cafe continues to be a destination location for old and new customers, and even familiar faces from the hospital days.
“People come with their children who have survived. Some of our customers here were patients in the hospital. We have done weddings of some people who have been sick in the hospital. It’s more than just a physical connection to the neighborhood,” she said.
Despite the challenges, restaurant owners remain committed to the area. Taccogna is hopeful that his patience will eventually pay dividends.
“I just have to grind it out every day to build my clientele, and make sure the product is so good the customers come back,” Taccogna said.