WICKER PARK — A family-owned French restaurant opens Monday in Wicker Park.
Jack’s Wicker Park, 2056 W. Division St., is owned by David and Michelle Nelson, West Loop residents who had talked for years about opening their own restaurant as they tried cuisines while traveling around the world.
David Nelson left his job as a shopping center executive last year and put that dream into action. The couple started looking for locations while brainstorming what their restaurant could look like and serve.
“I went through a process during 2021 where I said, you know, this is really the fourth quarter of the game, the fourth quarter of my life. I’m still ready to put on the uniform and play, but … three quarters are over,” said Nelson, 58. “I kept coming back to the idea of doing something where I was directly involved in the creation of something that enhanced other people’s lives in some small way.”
The Nelson’s signed a lease late last year at the Division Street location, a former Pizano’s restaurant which has been vacant for several years.
They undertook extensive renovations but maintained the layout of the restaurant with a bar up front and an expansive dining room in the back. It has a retractable roof for days with nicer weather.
Jack’s will serve classics, including French onion soup, escargot and steak frites, along with a croque madame, burgers and a pork tenderloin schnitzel, among other items.
“I wanted the food to be the highest quality possible. But I wanted the food to be approachable. I didn’t want it to be esoteric in nature,” David Nelson said.
To accomplish that mission, the Nelsons hired head chef Chris Holderman, the former executive chef of Nookies restaurants in Old Town and Lincoln Park.
Holderman said the first dish he approached for Jack’s was the steak frites, wanting to make it interesting for diners while also keeping it accessible.
“We want to make sure that we have a great cut of beef, but at the same time it isn’t — because steak can get super expensive — isn’t so far out there,” he said. “I like to have traditional pairings, dishes people would know, but give them a little twist. … It’s interesting. It’s approachable. You don’t need a food encyclopedia to understand the dishes.”
And while the Nelsons have been inspired by their travels around the world, they’ve also found one model a lot closer to home: the Chicago tavern.
“I always found those corner neighborhood bars much more compelling than the latest nightclub. I was just intrigued by that community thing,” David Nelson said. “So the North Star for us as a team is kind of that intersection of creating a restaurant that has that sense of community, that’s enhancing people’s lives and also has just fantastic food.”
The dining room will feature occasional live music, provided from time to time by the restaurant’s namesake: 17-year-old son Jack, a senior at Whitney Young Magnet High School and a jazz musician. When he’s not in school or playing music, he’ll be working part-time at the restaurant as a dishwasher.
The Nelsons also thought the name Jack’s mirrored the atmosphere they’re trying to create. They didn’t want a fancy French word people might forget or have trouble pronouncing.
“French names can be intimidating … but everybody knows a Jack or a classmate by the name Jack,” Michelle Nelson said.
The restaurant will feature an outdoor cocktail area and eventually a sidewalk patio along Division Street.
For Holderman, cooking in Wicker Park is a “kind of homecoming” — he started working as a chef in the neighborhood in the 1990s before moving on to restaurants across the city.
“The first place I ever cooked for anybody else and got money for it was at a jazz club called the Bop Shop at Division and Wood,” Holderman said. “I got to cook for a lot of jazz musicians and I made some black-eyed peas and stuff like that, but I’ve always loved Wicker Park.”
The Nelsons hope their restaurant will become a fixture in the neighborhood, the kind of place a family goes when their kid is back from college or where a couple stops by for a date night.
“What David and I learned over the years is food brings us the first time to a restaurant. But what brings you back is good service and a good environment and a good memory,” Michelle Nelson said. “A good dining experience, that’s what brings people back.”
Jack’s Wicker Park will be open for lunch and dinner 11 a.m.-11 p.m. weekdays and 11 a.m.-midnight weekends.
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