The Art of Chicken ┃2041 N. Western Ave, Chicago┃773.697.9266┃Hours: Tues-Sat 11am – 9pm (Closed on Sundays)┃Takes Visa and Mastercard┃NOT BYOB┃No Deliveries…Yet┃
Which came first, the chicken or the art?
It turns out that question is just as difficult to answer as the age-old query about the egg. But walking into Art of Chicken––which opened this February in Bucktown––it’s hard to take note of the vibrant, rainbow-hued chickens that grace the walls and menu board––their cartoon-like faces gazing at you quizzically, suspiciously even, as if they know why you’ve come––without wondering what brain they hatched from.
That creative mind would belong to artist Sam Kirk, who designed everything in the restaurant, from the floors up. But while the chickens themselves are the interior’s most striking elements, they weren’t always destined to be part of the design.
“I always start organically,” says Kirk, a multi-disciplinary artist who also happens to have a marketing background. “I knew I wanted to do something with a chicken coop, so I just started sketching chickens to get inspired.” When she presented her concept to Art of Chicken owner Christian Moreno, he saw the sketches and immediately wanted to use the chickens on the restaurant’s logo.
Of course, these birds have far more personality than most mascots. From the beginning, Kirk knew she wanted her design to blend elements of both city living and country charm, and so it’s not surprising that some of her chickens flaunt an urban-chic, punk-rock vibe while others are decidedly old school. The dynamic in the feathered flock also echoes that of the Art of Chicken family. Moreno was raised in Bucktown, but his menu features traditional family recipes from Mexico and incorporates fresh ingredients from a Wisconsin farm owned by a relative.
Inspired, Kirk enlisted the help of a copywriter, who dreamed up backstories for each of the chickens, composed them as newspaper clippings and plastered them on a mural. There’s El Jefe or “The Don,” who may or may not be using the restaurant as a cover for his real work with a well-known chicken crime family. He’s joined by Crazy Chico, the prankster; Funky Chicken, the colorful, smooth-talking bird that wins over customers with his charm and Leroy, who spends most of his time trying to remember why he crossed the road. Then, of course, there’s Sweet Pea, a country hen that keeps the rest of the birds in line as she doles out a heaping helping of down-home hospitality.
If all this character development seems like a lot of work for a humble chicken restaurant, it;s nothing compared to the lengths Kirk went to in order to bring the rest of her vision to life. Rustic wood floors appear to have been ripped from a decades-old barn but are actually brand new, their well-worn patina the result of hours spent sanding them by hand, staining, sanding and staining again. The same can be said for the wood tabletops, the metal stools and the custom-built front counter, which Kirk took a hammer and chisel to in order to give it a weathered look.
Why use new materials instead of reclaimed ones, especially when the latter is so on trend? In some cases, it was simply cheaper to use new stuff, though Sam also concedes that using new materials allowed her better control over the final look.
Another benefit to buying new was that Kirk could choose to source from local businesses, which she did for nearly every element including the restaurant’s showpiece––its front window. Custom made by a local carpenter, it was specifically designed to be flipped open on warm days, giving customers the feeling that they are staring straight into a chicken coop.
“We wanted something that would get people’s attention when they are driving by,” she says.
It works. Along a stretch of Western Avenue dominated by concrete banks, non-descript storefronts, and a shiny new McDonalds, The Art of Chicken radiates warmth, its caged light bulbs throwing an amber glow onto families who gather to feast on grilled chicken, mac and cheese, and corn on the cob boiled in buttermilk. If you’re lucky, you’ll even find Kirk hanging out there on certain afternoons.
“Sometimes it’s a little strange, “ she admits about sitting anonymously in the restaurant she built with her bare hands. “But you [see someone admiring your work], and then it’s really cool.”