Evanston restaurant scene on the rise with focus on experiential dining

Rachel Yang, Copy Chief

Despite the recent closings of beloved Evanston eateries such as DMK Burger & Fish and Wings Over Evanston, the city’s restaurant scene is expanding. From July to the end of September, 27 new businesses have opened, with nearly a quarter of them restaurants.

In comparison, there was an increase of only 12 new businesses in that same time period last year, three of which were restaurants.

Annie Coakley, the executive director of Downtown Evanston, said she has seen increased interest from restaurateurs wanting to set up shop in Evanston, more so than any other type of retail.

Coakley said the boom in Evanston’s restaurant scene is driven by the trend of what she calls “experiential dining” — going out to eat for the fun rather than just the food.

“So many people can purchase whatever they generally need online, except for personal care services,” Coakley said. “One of the things you cannot buy online is a meal out.”

She also said most of the upcoming businesses about to be opened in the city are restaurants.

This uptick in experiential dining stems from people’s increasing desire for a well-rounded dining experience, said Mark Muenzer, the city’s director of community development.

“(People) want to go somewhere that is not typical and that has cool design and is a great place to hang out and catch up with friends and family,” Muenzer said. “It’s not just the cuisine; it’s the experience, the music, the lighting, the neighborhood that it’s in … all that stuff plays into it.”

Keith Lord, the president and managing partner of The Lord Companies, a Chicago-based real estate company, said another recent trend for consumers is fast casual dining that can be shared with others.

“Instead of having full family sit-down restaurants that take two hours to eat, you have a lot more small-plate, quick-serve restaurants,” Lord said.

The main drive behind casual yet experiential dining is the 18-year-old to 35-year-old demographic in Evanston, Lord said.

“The lifestyle changes of this demographic group is what’s caused this change in new restaurants,” he said. “Most people in that group — they don’t do a lot of grocery shopping. They will shop for what they need on a short-term basis. They don’t like to cook for themselves.”

Instead, this group prefers to go out and spend money on dining, Lord said. For this demographic, convenience is the key to increased dining out, but another is the ability to customize food. Lord said a popular trend is customizable cuisine.

“(Young people) don’t want to just order off the menu. They want to be able to pick and put the food product together,” Lord said. “With places like Blaze Pizza and Flat Top … you’re not just going in and ordering off a menu of eight or nine items. You get to put something together that you have a say over, and that’s more fun and easier to get.”

Although there have been new restaurants opening in the city, there have been closings as well. Paul Zalmezak, an economic development official, said there have been about nine restaurants that have closed this year — not counting Dixie Kitchen, which initially closed but subsequently announced its renovation under new management.

These restaurants include Pret A Manger, Wings Over and Bravo Cucina Italiana, which closed on Oct 22. Zalmezak said among these nine restaurants, eight already have negotiations in the works for new ownership.

Gina Speckman, the executive director of Chicago’s North Shore Convention and Visitors Bureau, said she does not think the number of closings this year is uncommon. Considering many restaurants fail early on, the restaurants that closed in Evanston could have simply reached the end of their lifespans, Speckman said.

Muenzer also said the number of closings are part of the natural restaurant turnover rate.

“(There are) a few instances where restaurants, they’ve owned it for a period of time and they just want to do something else,” he said. “The family that owns it, or it’s privately owned, it’s just time to do something new.”

Zalmezak also said some previous restaurants — such as Buffalo Wild Wings, which closed a year ago — did not offer a unique or different enough experience.

“Bravo recently closed for the same reason,” he added. “It was a chain restaurant, kind of a sterile environment. It’s not what people are looking for … they are looking for something unique.”

Elaine Kemna-Irish, the executive director of the Evanston Chamber of Commerce, warns restaurants from merely hopping on the bandwagon and following current trends.

“If a person comes in and just tries to do a trend that is just, this is the hot thing right now, I don’t think they’re going to last,” she said. “They’re not going to be in it for the long haul.”

However, Zalmezak said because there are so many new restaurants experimenting with these trends of casual and customizable dining, it can be difficult for restaurant owners to maintain business.

Zalmezak said although it is possible people will move on from the current trend of fast, customizable food, he does not see that happening any time soon.

“The fast casual, or customization trend — it does seem like there’s a bandwagon effect,” he said. “People tire of stuff. But right now, we’re in the middle of an upswing. I don’t think there’s any signal that it’s going down.”

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