Years ago, UIC conducted a traffic study of the Harrison and Austin area of Oak Park. Number crunching, field research, and what I’m sure was intensive interrogation of the natives helped determine what they coined the east gate of Oak Park – and specifically Harrison street – be rezoned allowing shops of all kinds amidst the residential. Spurred on by the recommendation, Oak Parkers Patrick and Olya Dailey conceived what is now Eastgate Café.
“Have you ever been to a bar in Rome?” asked co-owner Patrick Dailey, his question competing with the buzz saw of cicadas and because it’s Thursday night at Eastgate, ukuleles.
I have never been to a bar in Rome. I’ve never been to Rome. After spending some time at Eastgate, I can now at least pause when faced with such a question. Not just a coffee shop, not just a bar, not just a café, not just a shoppe (they sell hard-to-find cookbooks, candles, and plates, and other items), this place is channeling something skirting the confines of definition. Bars in Rome have the same resistant streak.
It was dusk when I strolled through the propped open front door, kitchen aromas and ukulele song wafting out into the encroaching night. Patrick was quick to help me to an outside table as well as to a glass of Pinot Grigio.
Served in a stemless glass and filled to the top, this wine reminded me of a conversation I once had with a wine rep from Opus One, one of the most expensive, established wineries in the country. Faced with enough time for just one question, I turned to this rep during a luncheon and asked her of all her years and all her experience, what’s the one thing she is constantly amazed about. Without hesitating, she said, “Wine snobs.” We all started laughing, the irony of an Opus One representative bothered by wine snobs genuinely hilarious to us. Patient and a bit cool, a restive smile formed on her face.
“I grew up in an Italian household in Chicago,” she started to explain. Not addled by the Chicago mise en scène, her grandfather made wine in the basement. Sometimes he’d get wine out of his efforts, sometimes he’d get a very nice vinegar. All of the time, however, they drank this wine with their meals. Nothing fancy, nothing showy. It was just a part of eating well.
This story has stuck with me throughout the years. Like many stories, I didn’t necessarily learn anything new from it; a meal is almost always made better with some wine. Rarely, however, do you get to hear a member of the wine elite – someone who truly knows about wine – talk about the taint of snobbery. This all smacked of old money being annoyed with new money but with experience being the currency.
Sitting now, holding a glass of Pinot Grigio that I didn’t even ask the name of, I took a sip. My salad – the special of the evening – with thinly sliced smoked salmon, field greens, sliced almonds, black olives, capers, and a homemade gazpacho sauce paired very well with the wine. Nothing earth-shattering, nothing shocking, this wine with its subtle minerality, citrus, and floral was not just better than water with lemon or carbonated mineral water, it was more elegant, more refined. In turn, it brought out in me a focus, a heightening of my senses so I could really experience all these gestures of aroma and taste.
The water with a slice of lemon, with hints of chlorine and other unsavory aromas and flavors, seethed with harsh, abrasive acidity. That sounds dramatic, and it is. People rarely examine the bouquet and the taste of water. By contrast, the lemon in the Pinot Grigio took on something softer, more integrated, more present. Mineral water can sometimes overwhelm with its carbonation and even its minerals. Again, Pinot Grigio has within its flavor profile and aloof bouquet traces of minerality.
Traces are what I needed that night to bring together the herbal and salty traces of caper, the smoke in the salmon, the nuttiness of the almonds, the complexity of the white gazpacho. With enough French bread to drench up the last drops, the wine accompanied until the last bite. All of this for a mere $13!
If this was a Friday, I would have had as an accompaniment to my food and wine possible music (other than ukulele) and tarot card readings. Every Saturday night there’s definitely music. The third Sunday of every month from 5pm to 8pm or later is open mic, an event originating with the Oak Park Writers Group. Tuesday mornings at 10am is story time when Patrick, Olya, or a special guest reads aloud children books. And then there’s the occasional special event like what happened the weekend of September 10th and 11th during an art festival on Harrison Street. Olya oversaw the preparation of a Spanish themed feast featuring tapas along with some Portuguese food treasures. Wines to pair along with Turkish coffee rounded out the evening. Special entertainment involving Bolero music and Flamenco dancing was also provided.
Slowly extending their hours since they’ve opened, Eastgate Café is becoming a refuge for those who not only need a place to meet and eat but a little escape to something that’s hard to define but easy to remember.
102 Harrison Street
Oak Park, Illinois 60304
Hours (subject to change)
Monday-Thursday 6:30am to 9pm
Friday 6:30am to 10 pm
Saturday 8am to 10 pm
Sunday 8am to 8 pm