Wicker Park’s Division Street sports bar-saturated strip is getting an intriguing vegetable-forward restaurant from a veteran of many Chicago hotspots and the former chef of the dearly-departed Bom Bolla. Clever Rabbit, the brainchild of The Betty and Sparrow co-owner Chris Haisma, is coming to the former 25 Degrees (and Fame and Paradise Cantina) space at 2015 W. Division St., joining Pub Royale to help break up the bro bars with a menu of chef-driven vegetable dishes — as well as meats and seafood — that will be executed by chef Matt Lair. Haisma and co-owner Brad Serot are hoping to open the restaurant in mid-May.
Haisma, a Southern California native who is also a veteran of the Boka Restaurant Group, has been secretly working on the restaurant since 25 Degrees shuttered in October — but has been thinking about the idea for much longer — describes Clever Rabbit as a passion project that he believes is a good fit for Wicker Park. “We want to bring something that hopefully people will appreciate around here: thoughtfully-sourced produce, proteins from the right farms, and presenting them in a healthier way that’s not all butter and cream,” he says. “The neighborhood didn’t have anything like this so hopefully it’s well received.”
The menu will focus on vegetables, which will comprise “60-65 percent” of the food, Haisma says. Highlights should include sweet carrot dumplings; a large-format crudite platter with raw and pickled vegetables, conservas, and cheeses to be dipped in sauces made of vegetables themselves (think whipped, smoked mushrooms and eggplant agridolce, Lair says); and a vegetarian Cuban sandwich that centers on marinated and roasted cauliflower rather than pork shoulder.
Carnivores should be happy at Clever Rabbit too. “We all have family or friends who if you go out to eat with they don’t want to go to the vegetarian place or whatnot,” Lair says. “We will have things available for people like that or people who don’t feel satiated unless they’re eating (animal).“ He plans to include a beef burger, a half roasted chicken, oysters, and composed fish dishes. Seasonally-topped Neapolitan pizzas should also be on the menu, which will be broken down into smaller plates, larger plates, vegetables, and salads that can be topped with chicken or salmon. Also expect a kids menu, as Haisma says that “we want to be completely approachable for all the families too — we welcome strollers.”
The bar program, masterminded by managing partner Nick Pagor, continues the theme. In addition to a focus on wine, Pagor is working on a carrot margarita and a gin and tonic with matcha for the cocktail menu. Also expect 10 draft handles for rotating craft beers and ciders.
The space has been opened up from the bars that previously called the location home. It’s now decidedly restaurant — a bright and open one that includes a plant wall, a step-up dining area with plush banquettes, and will include a 40-seat plant-covered sidewalk patio. Look for 80 seats inside, including 12 at the bar.
As far as the name goes, Haisma says that he found “cool rabbit wallpaper” and thought “this must be a sign,” as the rabbit name also makes sense for the restaurant’s concept. That wallpaper now hangs in both of the bathrooms.
Vegetable-focused restaurants are not completely brand-new to Chicago, as the success of Bad Hunter on Randolph Row illustrates. But Wicker Park doesn’t have a restaurant like this — Mana Food Bar and Native Foods Cafe are strictly vegetarian — and Haisma feels that the area is perfect for his passion project that’s been percolating in his brain. “We’ve seen (the neighborhood) change over the years,” he says, “it’s grown up and it’s ready for something different, we feel.”
When 25 Degrees called it quits six months ago — marking five failed bars and restaurants since 2012 — Eater Chicago posed the question “who will take a chance on the space next?” It turns out that Clever Rabbit is taking that chance next, and it could finally be a breath of fresh air for the Division Street strip when it hopefully opens next month.