Chef Chris Thompson is a patient man. He’s waited for two years to introduce Lardon, his hotly anticipated cafe and salumeria on a bustling corner across from the CTA’s California Blue Line Stop, channeling the fortitude he learned from the laborious process that curing meat demands. At long last, this week he’s opened the restaurant as a culmination of everything he’s worked toward throughout his decades-long career: an industry-friendly neighborhood haunt serving what he hopes is the best charcuterie in Chicago.
“So much of cooking is instant gratification,” Thompson says. “You start with a side of beef, then it’s a steak, then it’s cooked, served, gone. Meat curing requires more work up front to ensure the sausage hanging in that room for three, six, nine months, even a year, is going to be an exceptional product at the end of the process. It taught me how to be much more patient as a chef.”
It also allows him to wade into the nerdy weeds of Old World techniques and traditions, butchering and utilizing whole animals and adding personal touches that are absent in mass-produced cured meats. There’s a lot of great salumi out there, Thompson notes, but he’s not striving to scale up and sell his goods nationwide. Rather, he wants to inject his own perspective on European-meets-Midwestern charcuterie in a cozy, casual atmosphere that attracts locals and hospitality industry workers. It helps to have his own special curing room, a small steel-lined space with a picture window so patrons can ogle the offering in progress.
“No one is doing this in the city that’s not doing wholesale or large scale,” says co-owner Steve Lewis (Centennial Crafted Brewing). “It’s an artisanal way of making food, and having that be available to friends and neighbors is the basis of what makes hospitality fun.”
Lewis knows something about patience too: over the two years, he almost entirely gutted the former Township space at 2200 N. California Avenue. The work was extensive, but he managed to include some preserved and reclaimed materials like exposed brick, honeycomb tiles, and maple flooring in a kind of ode to Thompson’s culinary ethos. Together they’ve formed a new restaurant company, Meadowlark Hospitality, hoping Lardon is the first of multiple projects.
The goal is for Lardon to become a homing beacon in the neighborhood, drawing in locals sometimes multiple times in one day with coffee and baked goods from Aya Pastry in the morning, a menu of simple sandwiches and salads for lunch, and cheese-and-meat boards with wine or cocktails in the evening. Thompson has chosen to feature cheeses from purveyors who share his interest in classic techniques with experimental twists, like Humboldt Fog from Northern California-based Cyprus Grove (the chef is originally from Long Beach, California) and Mobay from Wisconsin’s Carr Valley.
Thompson also plans to introduce a dinner menu in August that draws in part on his experience with Mediterranean cooking, previously showcased during his tenure at Coda di Volpe in Lakeview. He’ll host a few dinner pop-ups in the meantime as a stress test for the kitchen and waitstaff.
Thompson and Lewis also have designs on establishing Lardon as a go-to spot for industry workers on their days off in the style of Humboldt Park’s Cafe Marie-Jeanne, an all-day French restaurant loved by many of Chicago’s restaurant and bar workers that closed in November 2020 after due to economic fallout from the pandemic.
“Marie-Jeanne is a great proxy of what we aspire to be,” Thompson says. His desire to draw colleagues and compatriots is the inspiration behind lures like a tap devoted exclusively to Fernet-Branca, a potent and herbaceous Italian amaro favored by industry employees.
“We can’t be everything to everybody, but we want to be something to you no matter what time of day,” Lewis adds.