After 17 years in Lincoln Square, Isla Pilipina — a Filipino food mainstay loved for its addictive lumpia and for becoming a de facto gathering place for the Filipino-American community in Chicago — is closing. Owner Ray Espiritu’s 32-seat diner, tucked into a strip mall at 2501 W. Lawrence Avenue, will cease delivery and takeaway services Sunday. Espiritu plans to reopen in a new location in May, depending on the COVID-19 situation. He declined to provide an exact location, only saying it would be “downtown.”
Espiritu posted the news via Facebook. Isla Pilipina’s closure isn’t directly related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Espiritu and staff have been planning a closure and reopening for two years. They decided in December to close in April, having pushed off the closure several times. But with the uncertainty restaurants now face due to the coronavirus outbreak, Espiritu was finally inclined to make an announcement.
“In the past couple years, I’ve had these impulses to do something else,” Espirtu said. “When I started at the restaurant I was in my early 20s. I was a reckless punk in my teens, I want to return to that.”
He wants to evolve Isla Pilipina’s food business to be more nimble and manageable, with room for pop-ups and collaborations with nonprofit organizations. Espirtu also wants the restaurant to be more delivery and carry-out friendly.
The last two weeks of serving customers solely through delivery services and takeaway amidst a public health crisis was not the fond farewell that Espiritu and staff had envisioned. In lieu of snagging a last meal at the restaurant, Isla Pilipina fans have said goodbye from a distance, placing delivery and takeaway orders, sending emails and private messages, and leaving hundreds of comments in reply to Monday’s Facebook announcement.
“My phone’s been dying daily because of people sharing their messages. This was so important for us…At a time when we wanted to be so much closer to our customers, we are so far apart,” Espiritu said.
Isla Pilipina began at its Lawrence Avenue location under Espiritu’s parents’s ownership as a turo-turo — a common setup among Filipino-American restaurants where customers “point point” to their selections from a steam table buffet. After taking it over from his parents, Espiritu changed Isla to a cook-to-order restaurant, alongside chef Mario Nuñez, who hailed from famed Philippine restaurant franchise Barrio Fiesta. Isla Pilipina’s homestyle menu stood out for their classic fish and seafood dishes, like sinigang na bangus (tamarind soured soup with milkfish), guinataan na hipon at gulay (coconut milk-stewed shrimp, kabocha squash, and longbeans), and the aforementioned pinky-sized, slim, and crunchy lumpia shanghai.
With bright art on the walls from local Fil-Am art collective Escolta Street, the occasional barrel man souvenir, and an illustrated rendering of former Filipino First Lady Imelda Marcos on the menu, the full-service casual BYOB restaurant often crowded on weekends.
Isla Pilipina remained engaged in neighborhood events and festivals like Square Roots, the Lincoln Square Restaurant Week, and Chicago’s first Filipino Restaurant Week. In 2018, Isla Pilipina was nominated for a Jean Banchet Award in the Best Ethnic Restaurant category.
The new location will not replicate the original diner. Espirtu said the next incarnation will be smaller and “fast paced but with the high-quality stuff that customers have grown to love.” Espiritu shared the new iteration will continue the Isla Pilipina name, and will serve a rotation of select items from its original menu.
“Same classics, same greatest hits,” said Espiritu.
It might be awhile between Sunday and the opening date of the new restaurant. Meanwhile, if fans want to support staff during the pandemic, customers can donate via a GoFundMe page set up by Espiritu.
Isla Pilipina, scheduled to reopen in May in downtown Chicago, address not known.