Venerable indie vegan- and vegetarian-friendly neighborhood diner Pick Me Up Cafe is leaving for a new home after spending 23 years just south of Wrigley Field where it gave visitors a safe space from Chicago Cubs hoopla. The cafe, which specializes in animal-free options, is heading to Uptown. Owners Joe and Lavinia Mann plan to keep their original location open until March 22. They then intend to debut the Uptown location in April at 4882 N. Clark Street.
The colorful cafe has fostered a passionate following since it opened in 1997. Along with the nearby Alley, it provided a center for counter-culture, an an all-ages hangout that was the anti-thesis to the sports bars that line Clark Street toward Wrigley. There was no Top 40 here as bands like Faith No More blared on the jukebox. But times are changing. The Alley’s comeback attempts have fizzled. Strange Cargo, a clothing and trinket store that shared that same DIY spirit as Pick Me Up, moved in 2018 from Wrigleyville to Andersonville.
Pick Me Up’s owners cited several reasons for the move, the most pressing being the CTA’s $2.1 billion Red-Purple Line modernization project. That facilitated the demolition of 14 buildings near Clark, Roscoe, and Sheffield. Irish bar Johnny O’Hagan’s was a casualty of that project (it closed in 2016). Though the building that houses Pick Me Up — along with Al’s Beef and Irie Jerk Bar and Grill — was spared, the transit project still hurt the cafe. The Manns said concerns like unexpected sidewalk closures and problems with garbage pick-up, killed business.
Not all business owners could persevere and the couple was disheartened watching others struggle as Lakeview and Wrigleyville transformed. Besides the CTA changes, Cubs ownership has poured millions of dollars into new development near the baseball stadium. New buildings like Hotel Zachary have remade the area.
“The neighborhood that we felt that we were really ingratiated into and a part of seems to have changed to the point where I’m not sure what our purpose is anymore,” said Joe Mann. “We’re not going to move just for moving’s sake — if we’re going to move, want to be in an area where we can be a part of the neighborhood.”
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It was time to turn a new page, and at around 2,200 square feet, the new space should hold around 15 or 16 booths and tables. The Manns aren’t working with an interior designer. At the new location, there may be sufficient floor space for spots in the middle of the room; seating at the original spaced hugged the windows. Large squares of cork board are already in place on a section of wall for customers to affix their art, fliers, and concert tickets as decorations.
“We’re still playing,” Joe Mann said. “It’s like having a bunch of Legos in front of you and not having any directions.”
The owners also feel that their staff, some of whom have spent two decades with the cafe, feel empowered to display their personalities in a space that isn’t cookie-cutter or prefabricated, but reflects the business’s community-focused ethos.
“Lots of places that are very monotone, but we’re not that place,” Lavinia Mann said. “We’re loud, we play loud music, some of our staff is over the top — we love it.”
While the relocation is a significant change for the owners and customer community they’ve developed, the cafe’s menu will remain the same. It features selection of vegan, vegetarian, and some meat items give diners with varying dietary desires or requirements a chance to share a meal. The restaurant isn’t 100-percent meat-free. In the past, they served a garlic-chicken sandwich, “the Garlicious Breast,” to appease omnivores.
But the diner was still popular with vegans due to options like “mac & cheeze,” a pizza grinder (garlic bread, seitan, mushrooms, green peppers, marinara, mozzarella), and a stir fry dubbed “Stir Crazy After All These Years.” The drink selection will also remain, with boozy additions for shakes along with mimosas and bloody marys.
The future of the Lakeview space is unknown. Meanwhile, Pick Me Up Cafe’s new Uptown location — which previously housed Italian restaurant Monticcio — is slated to debut in April. Stay tuned for news of an opening date.
Pick Me Up Cafe, scheduled to close on March 22 at 4882 N. Clark Street in Lakeview, and move in April to 4882 N. Clark Street in Uptown.