A South Side native, Latino opened the original Bongo Room in 1993 with longtime friend and business partner Derrick Robles in Wicker Park. The duo earned legions of fans over their 30-year partnership, attracting admirers and imitators with a joyful take that raised the bar on breakfast and brunch all over town.
The 58-year-old Latino died suddenly of natural causes on Thursday, January 11 in Chicago, Robles says.
“John really spoke with his food,” Robles says. “He was a quiet man, shy most of the time... We never really sought out recognition, we just kind of kept our nose to the grindstone and blinders on to focus on the restaurant, letting John’s food and our service speak for itself.”
They would move from the original Damen Avenue location four years after opening. Long weekend brunch lines would regularly stretch onto the sidewalk of Milwaukee Avenue outside the current location in Wicker Park with customers indulging in specialty pancakes and other items. While chefs famously hate brunch, Bongo Room embraced it and customers woke up early to get on the waitlist. Bongo Room is hailed as one of the restaurants that turned Wicker Park into a brunch village. Bongo Room also provides a haven for weekday breakfast for neighborhood locals.
Robles, who grew up in Beverly, met Latino in 1992 when they worked together at Gold Coast’s famed Pump Room, but the men had crossed paths before. Robles recalls first seeing Latino in 1988 across the room at now-shuttered LGBTQ nightclub icon Berlin. “He was kind of goth back then, he wore kilts and combat boots and had his hair spiked up 10 inches high,” Robles says.
While Robles was growing weary of hospitality, Latino, then a student at Kendall College, always wanted to open a restaurant. That dream became a reality faster than they anticipated when a friend of Latino wanted to get out of a lease at 1560 N. Damen Avenue, the present site of Stan’s Donuts. That’s where Robles and Latino debuted their first location. After struggling the first year and a half with operations, challenges that Robles says contributed to the end of their romantic relationship, Latino developed a series of dishes that would become the restaurant’s signature, like fluffy lemon ricotta pancakes and banana bread French toast.
1994 was a red-letter year for Bongo Room thanks to rockstar Liz Phair, a Chicagoan who recorded her debut album Exile in Guyville at nearby Idful Music studio. Phair (also a former regular at indie rock dive Rainbo Club) met a reporter for an interview in Rolling Stone over Latino’s blueberry pancakes, and the restaurant snagged a mention in the article.
Longtime friend Margaret MacKay held several positions at Bongo Room in the late ‘90s and says the restaurant’s popularity never went to Latino’s head. “He was a perfectionist,” she says. “He wanted to touch every plate [because] every plate had meaning to him. He felt like it was a reflection on him and [Robles].”
During the early years of Bongo Room, Chicago businesses generally didn’t advertise their LGBTQ ownership. While the restaurant was never awash in rainbow flags, Robles says they never hid who they were. He credits that to the accepting atmosphere of Wicker Park at the time, then an artist enclave where “everyone could be who they wanted to be and live without judgment,” relative to other parts of the city.
Latino and Robles sought out a larger space and in 1997 relocated to 1470 N. Milwaukee Avenue. Six years later, they opened a South Loop location (it closed in 2019) and expanded in 2012 to Andersonville. Since 2020, however, the business has struggled, says Robles.
As he grieves for Latino, he is unsure of what the future holds for Bongo Room. Weekend business has returned to about 80 percent of pre-pandemic levels, but weekday numbers remain dramatically reduced.
“[His] passing, on a personal level, has been so incredibly devastating and soul-crushing for me,” Robles says. “For me, it’s kind of like losing my left arm and I don’t know how to envision staying open without him.... it’s knowing there will never be another John Latino spring or fall menu — that was a rude awakening. It was a jolt, that it won’t happen again.”
News of Latino’s death spread quickly among the extended Bongo Room community, with friends and former employees across the country reconnecting to share memories from years past. MacKay remembers Latino’s affectionate, kind demeanor, as well as his apparent inability to say a bad word about anyone, including the most difficult patrons.
“I’d like for people to think that about me, but it really was the case with [Latino],” MacKay says. “He was always just lighthearted to be around, loving, like a unicorn. To me, he was one of a kind.”
Robles agrees. “In the restaurant business, you can come across some pretty challenging customers, and we did throughout the past three decades,” he says. “But John never had an unkind word for anybody... He’d do anything for the people he loved. It wasn’t easy to get into John’s circle, but once you were in, you were in for life.”
Funeral services were held on Wednesday, January 17 at Lawn Funeral Home in Tinley Park.