Vajra, an Indian Nepali restaurant in West Town that made a name for itself by serving upscale takes on classic dishes such as tandoori venison, goat steak, and lobster momos, will be closing on Sunday, June 19, after three years, its owners announced on Instagram earlier this week.
The restaurant made it through the pandemic more or less intact, says co-owner Dipesh Kakshapaty, speaking on behalf of the management team. The dining room closed in March 2020 — for good, it turned out — but Vajra did solid business with takeout and delivery, even though some of the fancier dishes had to be cut from the menu. It was after pandemic restrictions lifted that the problems started.
“We started to get a little scared of the future,” says Kakshapaty. “The present is okay. But deferral payments are coming due, we have to pay our taxes, there’s the rising cost of labor and food and everything. The margins are getting thinner and thinner. We wanted to make sure we didn’t dig ourselves into a bigger hole.”
The lease on their storefront on Chicago Avenue wasn’t due to expire for another year, but the owners decided to see if they could find someone to take over. If no one was interested, they would persevere, but shortly after they started asking around, Mo Carter, the owner of Sketch, an Afro-Asian fusion restaurant, offered to take over. Sketch will open in mid-July.
The owners’ biggest concern, says Kakshapaty, was the fate of its employees, particularly the chef, Min Thapa. Thapa had worked with Kakshapaty at his previous restaurant, Cumin in Wicker Park, and his cooking had been instrumental in Vajra’s success, which included a two years on the Michelin Bib Gourmand list and a Jean Banchet nomination. He had also survived a bout with colon cancer in 2019, and the owners didn’t want to leave him unemployed.
Fortunately, Thapa and two other chefs have found a home at Rishi, a takeout-only Indian restaurant nearby in River West. The owner, Pravin Khadka, also worked with Kakshapaty at Cumin. “People love [Thapa’s] food wherever he goes,” says Kakshapaty. The other remaining employees have also found work elsewhere.
So now the owners are at peace with the decision, says Kakshapaty. “The industry is in constant transition right now,” he says. “Whatever Vajra achieved in the past, chef will repeat the same magic. It’s a bittersweet moment, but it’s for the good. Whatever came out of it was good.”
Vajra, 1329 W. Chicago Avenue, Open 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. daily, takeout and delivery only.