Nearly two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, the urge to flee somewhere — anywhere — is an understandable impulse. Restaurants have long capitalized on the notion of escapism, using decor, lighting, music, and especially food from around the country and world to whisk customers out of their day-to-day existence. Though Chicagoans can travel internationally once again, the experience is fraught with testing, detailed paperwork, and airline staffing shortages.
Fortunately for cabin fever-stricken locals, a new cafe now open in Lakeview is transporting patrons into an immersive, comic book-style version of Paris intricately rendered in black-and-white illustrations. 2D Restaurant, the creation of wife-and-husband team Vanessa Thanh Vu and Kevin Yu, has debuted as one of Chicago’s most unusual dining spots, specializing in cups of Vietnamese phin coffee and colorful mochi doughnuts.
“The post-pandemic dining experience is very different from before, so my wife and I are discovering the next phase of hospitality,” says Yu. “People want a special and unique experience to help them forget the hardship of the past few years. We have one mission, and that’s to bring joy to our community.”
Formerly a managing partner at Kizuki Ramen in Wicker Park and Lincoln Park, Yu stepped away from his position early in the COVID-19 pandemic to reduce possible exposure to the couple’s young child. It was then that he and Vu, an interior designer with the design firm DLR Group, first began to envision a business that combined their shared interest in art, comics, and hospitality.
In partnership with Chicago artist Mia Larson, the couple spent about two years attending to every detail of the 1,600 square-foot space, ultimately crafting an immaculate 22-seat fantasy world that channels the Netflix hit Emily in Paris, complete with a balcony view of the Eiffel Tower, a 1920s-style en-suite hotel bathroom complete with a bubble-filled clawfoot tub, and a cozy library stocked with tall bookshelves around a lit fireplace. When warm weather arrives, they’ll unveil a 300-square-foot patio that’s also outfitted with Larson’s intricate mural work.
The opening menu — coffee and doughnuts — may sound simple, but like its space, 2D’s offerings are more than they appear. In a nod to Vu’s Vietnamese background, it features traditional phin coffee made with a round metal filter that uses gravity to create a strong, clean flavor often described as a cross between pour over and French press techniques. Each drink is made to order, which can become time consuming, but staff have been trained to work efficiently. The couple collaborated with Chicago roastery Metropolis Coffee Company on a special roast that yields a buttery, smooth cup that’s suited to leisurely sipping. “We like to think of it as Sunday morning coffee, not Monday,” says Yu.
Similarly, the doughnuts are atypical — even for mochi doughnuts, which have, in recent years, popped up around Chicago at spots like Gaijin in the West Loop. Yu makes 2D’s version of bubble-shaped pon de ring doughnuts with a combination of mochi and tapioca starches to create a texture that’s both chewy and airy. And unlike a regular mochi doughnut, Yu’s spin stands up to coffee instead of dissolving on contact.
In the coming weeks, 2D plans to expand the menu to include Yu’s ultra-crunchy fried chicken made with marinated dark meat. Inspired by crispy poultry from Japan, Korea, and Taiwan, the chicken will be accompanied by several sauces, including yuzu honey mustard and sweet-and-spicy “hot rooster sauce.” Once chicken operations are running smoothly, the restaurant will start offering fried chicken sandwiches like a panko-crusted Tokyo Rooster and the indulgent Morning Rooster: fried chicken and a sunny-side-up egg tucked between two doughnuts.
If the long lines trailing out the restaurant’s doors over the weekend are any indication, Chicago diners are already falling hard for 2D’s romantic overtures. Should that puppy love bloom into a full-on affair, Yu and Vu may take the idea to other parts of the country. “We both love Chicago so much because there’s so much life and potential here,” Yu says. “If the opportunity allows, we’d love to explore the possibility [of expansion]. We could all use a bit more joy in our lives.”
2d Restaurant, 3155 N. Halsted Street, Open 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily.