Former Next Restaurant chef Jenner Tomaska and wife Katrina Bravo are enamored with Lincoln Park, and want to raise a family in the North Side neighborhood. That’s why they’re planting their flag with a new restaurant. It won’t open until next year — thanks COVID-19 — but the couple plans to debut Esme in March 2021 at 2220 N. Clark Street.
Esme is part of a new wave of restaurants opening in the neighborhood. Galit, Mundano, and a second Chicago location of Parson’s Chicken & Fish have reshaped the area. Tomaska and Bravo will join that group as they’ve signed a lease on the long-vacant property at the corner of Webster and Clark. It’s about 3,800 square feet with room for a patio outside.
“We may try to open slightly earlier depending on the last couple months and how it would impact us and the rest of the hospitality industry,” says Tomaska.
Tomaska was the former chef at Next, the Fulton Market restaurant from Alinea Group that repeatedly confused Michelin inspectors due to the concept’s shifting nature. Inspectors would snub Next from its rankings, saying it was impossible to recommend the restaurant and predict what the next iteration would look or taste like. Michelin finally relented and granted the restaurant a single star this year. Tomaska left Next in 2018 — where he earned nominations for the James Beard Award for Rising Star Chef of the Year in 2016 and 2017.
Tomaska and Bravo want potential customers at Esme to know how important community is to them. Tomaska didn’t want to talk much about his food; with the pandemic there are so many unknowns. Tomaska did say the bar area with be more casual than the main dining room where diners will have the option to order a tasting menu. There’s also a private dining room toward the center of the space: “My background is in fine dining, that’s always going to stick with me at some point,” Tomaska says. “But I don’t think that’s necessarily our mission with what we’re trying to accomplish with this space.”
Opening a fine dining restaurant in the middle of a pandemic — with Black Lives Matter protests continuing — is a challenge. Those events are shaping Bravo’s goal for Esme’s focus on inspiring the community. They’ll open the space up to the arts, youth groups, and to introduce neighbors to organizations with philanthropic missions that don’t get the spotlight on the North Side. Bravo talks about the need for inclusivity while Tomaska mentions the need to have approachable choices.
Since leaving Next two years ago, Tomaska has been busy in building an audience and brand on social media. Tomaska has amassed nearly 77,000 followers in Instagram. Social media superstardom hasn’t distracted him from the kitchen. He subbed in for Iliana Regan at Elizabeth Restaurant and worked at Virtue with mentor Erick Williams.
Bravo worked in marketing for Alinea Group, and the Miami native has a background using social media with brands. Bravo says locals living near the restaurant site would prefer more quality dining options nearby. They grow tired of driving to other neighborhoods like River North or Logan Square.
“If you talk to any Lincoln Parker, they’ll tell you we don’t have enough food,” Bravo says.
The space stands across the street from Francis W. Parker School which meant the restaurant needed special approvals to sell wine and other alcohol. Tomaska and Bravo scored those approval by attending community meetings and meeting with neighbors. The space will look radically different compared to past iterations. It’s a former Cosi. Before that it was a diner called Webster Corner.
Bravo says it’s hard for her husband to turn off his brain, as Tomaska has other ideas for restaurants. Tomaska didn’t share any of those ideas, but did say his “long-term goal is not to be the chef of Esme forever. He’d like to eventually “pass the torch and continue to work in other avenues and other things.”
That’s the future. For now, Tomaska and Bravo are excited about a new start in Lincoln Park. Esme is looking to be one of Chicago’s most anticipated restaurant openings of 2021. Stay tuned for updates.
Esme, 2220 N. Clark Street, planned to open March 2021.