The sad story of the CTA vs. the little shops on Rockwell just got a little more interesting. You may recall the announcement that the CTA will be shutting down our L stop—the Rockwell station—for six months while it remodels and upgrades it. Whereas this is minor inconvenience for the residents nearby—after all, it’s a mere quarter-mile more to the nearest station—it’s going to be a real kick in the nuts for the small (and I imagine already struggling) collection of shops on the block next to the station. In addition to losing the foot traffic, the street itself will become something of a dead zone, since the construction crew will need to shut down both lanes of traffic for parts of the year to work on the street-level station.
One imagines these shop and restaurant owners spend their nights sweating over the books, weighing operational costs against the meager returns they can expect over the coming two seasons. Not so the owners of the shuttered Art Cafe, whose bizarro sense of economics revealed that in this wintery climate, the best move would be to start up their restaurant again.
Background: occupying (up-to-now) primo real estate space on Rockwell, steps away from the station entrance, the terminally closed Art Cafe has been somewhat of a local enigma. It’s never once shown any signs of being open to the public, much less a place you’d want to sit down and have a drink of coffee and relax. The only clues to its existance are the austere red-on-brown sign hovering over the doorway and the occasional duo of surly-looking Croatian mafiosos sitting on the other side of half-closed blinds and looking generally pissed. Sometimes the little light coming from inside the place illuminated a few shelves of merchandise that you might see in a convenience store. Not that anyone was allowed in to buy it.
Suddenly, it had changed. Replacing the strange men and pervasive dankness was the beginnings of a normal looking restaurant. First, tables and chairs. Art on the wall. The next day, a sign appeared in the window announcing its reopening. Then a menu—the Art Cafe had a wood-burning oven, from which would be served a dozen different styles of thin-crust pizza. (The very style of restaurant that’d I’d love to open, were I to be so moved.) No explanation of their long absence from the scene, or why they’re opening now, or what happened to those surly men.
Thursday, we had no dinner plans, so we agreed to give it a go. Best to seize the opportunity while we could. As we walked up, we noticed other customers. I’ll admit this quelled a slight unease I had that we were walking into some kind of nefarious trap—there was still something horror movie-esque about the whole thing. Xenophobic feelings notwithstanding, it seemed legit enough, so we opened the door and walked in.
The mushroom pizza we shared, it turns out, was not too shabby. I like myself some crispy thin-crust pizza. I like it better when the mushrooms are fresh, not canned, but for $9.95 for two (tax included—or did they forget?), I’m not complaining. The service was quick and friendly (despite a confusing exchange between us and the owner wherein she sat us down at our table without menus, walked away, then came back a minute later and said, “Can I help you?”, as if she had absolutely no idea why were were in her restaurant.) and the ambience pleasant, if a little oversaturated with creepy art.
Maybe the mafia knows something I don’t about construction economics, or maybe they’ve got a free lease and just like to fuck with people’s minds. Either way, it’s always nice to see businesses open instead of close, so I wish them the best of luck.