Nearly four years have passed since veteran chef Michael Lachowicz unveiled a duo of French restaurants, Aboyer and Silencieux, in suburban Winnetka to much excitement and critical acclaim. After navigating pandemic challenges and an industry-wide dialogue over hospitality workplace culture, Lachowicz will soon break the mold of his previous establishments with the opening of Fonda, a relaxed and nostalgic Mexican restaurant that’s shooting for an early 2023 debut at 1735 Benson Avenue in suburban Evanston.
Fonda is a significant departure from the French fine dining cuisine for which Lachowicz is known. That’s intentional, as the culinary voices featured at Fonda are those of his Mexican-born collaborators and business partners, chef Miguel Escobar, sous chef Carlos Cahue, and wine director Sergio Angel. The story shares some similarities with the owners of Bucktown French favorite Le Bouchon. Its owners also delved into Mexican food, giving longtime employees an opportunity by opening Taqueria Chingon in Bucktown.
“This is all about the team — I’ve got nothing to do with it,” Lachowicz says. “I am building this, but I don’t have a depth of knowledge of Mexican cuisine. I have a team that has that knowledge and passion, so this is not about Michael cooking Mexican food. I can’t, not like that!”
Escobar and Cahue’s menu will draw on the regional dishes of their hometowns, Huandacareo in Michoacan and Huitzuco in Guerrero, highlighting a tight selection of 16 to 18 dishes like a sweet and savory twice-roasted banana pepper stuffed with ground beef, pork, toasted almonds, and candied fruit. Lachowicz believes it will be a signature dish for the restaurant, which he hopes will become a relaxed retreat for Evanston diners, as well as students and faculty at nearby Northwestern University. Menu items won’t exceed $21, and walk-up window service will be available until 4 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.
Fonda is divided into two spaces: a laid-back, 90-seat dining room of the same name with traditional table service, and the Cantina, a lively 60-seat bar area with a slightly scaled-down version of the food menu and a focus on cocktails. Each section has its own entrance but they’ll share a kitchen.
“We’re not trying to compete with high-end Mexican cuisine,” he says. “A fonda, technically, is a casual meeting place where everyone convenes and shares their day, their life, and enjoys breaking bread. There’s no reason not to be there, there are only reasons to join.”
Despite the turmoil of the past few years, Lachowicz says the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic was a clarifying moment in his career. “I realized, holy shit, [my staff] is a hell of a strong group of people,” he says. “What it came down to is, I can attract great talent, but how do I retain that talent?”
The break from the day-to-day grind of running multiple restaurants as well as many soul-searching conversations with his wife and in alcoholism recovery meetings allowed Lachowicz to identify the harms he perpetuated in his own kitchens and make changes to improve circumstances for both his team and family. Instead of focusing on the role of teacher, he says he decided to become teachable himself.
“This is a special group [of staff], it’s like the Bad News Bears over here,” he says. “So what better way is there to show my gratitude for their hard work and sweat than provide a platform for them to showcase their talent and passion?”
Fonda, 1735 Benson Avenue, scheduled to open in winter 2023.