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The Daily Northwestern

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Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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Alcove Evanston celebrates 10 years under chef Elio Romero’s ownership

Alcove+Evanston%E2%80%99s+unique+location+limits+it+to+only+80+or+so+seats.
Photo courtesy of Jenna Spray
Alcove Evanston’s unique location limits it to only 80 or so seats.

Feinberg student Maxime Visa had been working at Alcove Evanston for about three months when he received an invitation from the head chef. 

Visa, a Weinberg student at the time, was a bartender at the upscale American-inspired restaurant, located under the Davis Street Metra station. As he was helping close up a long Friday night shift, Elio Romero, the head chef and owner of the restaurant, invited Visa to join him early the next morning on a trip to the Evanston Farmers’ Market to pick up the week’s produce.

That trip was the start of a mentorship that continues to this day.

“(Romero) knew everyone — what produce they had, what they had been up to,” Visa said. “It just goes to show how even in such a small space, you can have a big impact.”

Alcove Evanston, formerly known as Chef’s Station, will celebrate 10 years under Romero’s ownership next month, though his influence on the restaurant began much earlier.

Romero immigrated to the Chicago area from El Salvador when he was 17 years old, eventually getting a job on Central Street in Evanston as a dishwasher at the grocery store Foodstuffs. In 2000, he was hired as a sous chef at Chef’s Station, but Romero knew he could do more. 

When the head chef left two years after Romero started, Chef’s Station owner Peter Mills decided to give Romero a six-month run at the position. 

“I knew he could do the work,” Mills said. “But then he proceeded to blow everybody’s mind.”

Romero had a singular vision for the establishment, one that he refused to compromise. He made significant changes to the quality of menu choices and ingredient sourcing, sat Mills down to sort through some of the restaurant’s financial issues and even cooked previews of the new menu items for him.

“I said to him, ‘If you like it, great,’” Romero said. “‘If not, it’s going on the menu anyway.’”

Romero maintained his dedication after Mills decided to retire and sell Chef’s Station in 2014. Although Mills said he received another, “potentially better” offer, he thought Romero would be the best choice for the restaurant’s future.

Romero went even further, buying out the rest of the investors in the restaurant so he could have full control.

“I didn’t want to report to anyone,” Romero said. 

In February 2020, Romero started renovations to transform Chef’s Station into Alcove, turning the traditional interior into something more modern. Just six weeks later, before the renovation was finished, the COVID-19 pandemic forced many Chicagoland restaurants to shut down and threatened the future of the establishment.

Romero was unable to acquire a second bank loan due to uncertainty around the pandemic, and he said he had to dip into the college fund for his three daughters and work construction during the day to bring in extra cash. 

But it was the support of regular customers that helped the restaurant survive, he said.

As for the future, Romero plans to travel home to El Salvador soon to visit family and see what he said inspires him: the farm he helped build on his parents’ street and the river fish he used to catch and cook fresh during his youth.

Though he’s not sure which Salvadoran dishes he hopes to recreate, he hopes to bring some of that cuisine — and philosophy — to Evanston.

“I grew up appreciating everything, because I didn’t have anything,” Romero said. “I’ll leave it to the future, but it can only get better.”

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @jackververis

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