Saint Emeric operates out of a historic church in Logan Square. Credit: Courtesy of Aidan Kranz (@aidan.kranz)

LOGAN SQUARE — A small frame church with stained glass windows has commanded two and a half blocks on a residential street in Logan Square for nearly 135 years.

The exterior of the church has looked the same for decades. But inside is a fine dining restaurant and performance venue that ranks high on the list of Chicago’s most unique establishments.

For three years, the owners have kept the project a secret to give it an air of mystery, only hosting private dinners and ticketed events and relying on word-of-mouth to get people in the door. Now, they’re pulling back the curtain on the covert operation.

The owners opened up the restaurant — called Saint Emeric — to the general public for the first time last month. They’re still applying for city permits, but anyone can now book a reservation for the “chef’s table” dinner on Fridays and Saturdays via Tock.

“We were just ready for more people to know about it,” executive chef Eric Brown said. “It’s not hard to fill 12 seats. But we want to make sure those 12 seats have an opportunity to not be the same person every time.”

With this shift in direction, the founders are faced with a challenge: How do they keep Saint Emeric mysterious while raising its profile?

For one thing, they’re not planning to publish the address on their website anytime soon. It’s not in this story, either.

“There’s a lot of ways to connect the dots, but we’re doing what we can, without being overbearing, to keep a veil up,” Brown said.

A musical performance at Saint Emeric. Credit: Courtesy of Aidan Kranz (@aidan.kranz)

‘We’re Inviting People Into Our House’

Saint Emeric is in a church that dates back to the 1880s. The church was originally home to Hungarian Catholic Church of St. Emeric and later became the St. Hedwig Mission Church in 1939.

After years of dwindling membership, the Archdiocese of Chicago closed the church in ’90s, opening it up to redevelopment, co-owner Jim Jacoby said. That’s when the previous owners bought the church and turned it into a single-family home.

“The previous owners removed all of the pews, removed the remains of a huge organ, but the bones of it all are all original,” he said.

Jacoby, the founder of a tech company, and his wife, Molly Morter, a public relations professional, assumed ownership of the property six years ago, choosing to live on the top floors and open up the sanctuary-turned-living-room to occasional ticketed performances. They converted the lower level into a high-end kitchen and dining area for private dinners.

The couple wanted the building to remain a community hub, even after the gut rehab. But given the forces of the real estate market in Logan Square, they also wanted to keep the establishment a secret, Jacoby said.

The previous owners “were being pursued by commercial developers to convert the property into an event space, get those licenses,” Jacoby said. “But that would really change, we think, the dynamic of the block and the nature of the neighborhood we live in.

“It means something to be informal, and to be a space that’s a home first. Molly and I see that as a primary component: We’re inviting people into our house. We think that’s meaningful.”

Jim Jacoby and Molly Morter, founders of Saint Emeric. Credit: Courtesy of Aidan Kranz (@aidan.kranz)

Saint Emeric took shape in 2019.

At the time, Brown was running a seasonally inspired pop-up called Pinky Ring, and Jacoby and Morter asked if he’d be interested in hosting a dinner at their new restaurant and event space. Brown said he was floored by the church and immediately wanted to get more involved in the project.

“We hit it off, and I was like, ‘Can I run this space for you?’ At the time, they were like, ‘We can’t promise you a salary, we can’t promise you really anything, but yeah,'” Brown said.

With Brown at the helm, Saint Emeric started out as a “revolving door concept,” with local chefs hosting 35-person private dinners there each weekend.

The pandemic was a significant obstacle at first, forcing a shutdown. But the restaurant fared much better than other restaurants because it only hosted private dinners. Once it felt safe to do so, the founders reopened Saint Emeric and went with a bring-your-bubble-to-dinner approach.

“Frankly, it did even better because it was a very controlled experience,” Jacoby said.

Around that time, Brown took the reins in the kitchen and started offering his own seven-course tasting menu for $145 a person. Now, those dinners are the centerpiece of Saint Emeric.

In true Saint Emeric fashion, Brown only gives guests a glimpse of the menu after booking a reservation (i.e. “beef and beets” or “spaghetti squash with burnt seeds”). But the seasonal dishes are complex in design. For example, Brown’s take on a classic strawberries and cream dessert is made with Scandinavian cheesecake mousse and three preparations of strawberries.

“I don’t think I’m someone who’s trying to reinvent the wheel, flavor-wise. I love playing with texture,” Brown said.

The dinners are BYOB, as Saint Emeric doesn’t have a liquor license. Brown provides guests with a list of suggested beverage pairings ahead of time.

Mark Hubbard the Voices performing at Saint Emeric. Credit: Courtesy of Aidan Kranz (@aidan.kranz)

In recent months, the owners have also started hosting musical performances on a regular basis. In January, they launched a “gospel brunch” series ($75 a person) with a three-course tasting menu from chef Lisa Shaw and a performance by local gospel group Mark Hubbard and the Voices.

“They performed for our wedding ceremony. It was jaw-dropping,” Jacoby said. “We want to have others experience that. It’s amazing.”

The event consistently sells out, Brown said.

On a broader level, Saint Emeric has seen success so far, benefitting from a snowball effect of guests.

“One group will come in, and then someone from that group will come with another group, and then they’ll all come back together,” Brown said.

But the founders said they’re ready to bring in new faces, even if it means stripping away some of the mystery. More people should experience the magic of Saint Emeric, they said.

“I think Logan Square in particular is a very, very good location for something like this,” Jacoby said. “This is a community of people who want to connect and want to discover things together.”

“The consistent response we get, especially from those who are local, are like, ‘I can’t believe I found you. I’m so glad I found you. The neighborhood needs something like this.'”

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Logan Square, Humboldt Park & Avondale reporterrnrnmina@blockclubchi.orgnnLogan Square, Humboldt Park & Avondale Twitter @mina_bloom_