WICKER PARK – A family-owned French restaurant opens Monday in Wicker Park.
Jack’s Wicker Park, 2056 W. Division St. Owned by David and Michelle Nelson, West Loop residents have talked for years about opening their own restaurant while trying the cuisine while traveling the world.
David Nelson quit his job as a shopping center CEO last year and put that dream into action. The couple began researching locations while brainstorming what their restaurant could look and serve.
“I went through a process during 2021 where I said, ‘You know, that’s really the fourth quarter of the game, the fourth quarter of my life.’ I’m still ready to put on a uniform and play, but… three quarters are up,” said Nelson, 58. to the idea of doing something where I was directly involved in creating something that empowered other people to live in a small way.”
The Nelson signed a lease late last year at the location of Division Street, a former Pizano restaurant that has been vacant for several years.
They have done extensive renovations but have kept the restaurant layout with a bar at the front and a spacious dining room at the back. It has a retractable roof for days with nice weather.
Jack’s will serve up classics, including French onion soup, escargot and steak frites, along with croque madame, burgers and pork schnitzel, among others.
“I wanted the food to be of the highest quality possible. But I wanted the food to be friendly. I didn’t want it to be inherently esoteric,” said David Nelson.
To get the job done, the Nelson family hired chef Chris Holdman, the former executive chef of Nookies restaurants in Old Town and Lincoln Park.
Holderman said the first dish he approached for Jack was steak, wanting to make it enjoyable for diners while also keeping it accessible.
“We want to make sure we have great cuts of beef, but at the same time it’s not – because steak can get expensive – it’s not yet available,” he said. “I like to have traditional pairings, dishes people might know about, but give them a little twist. … It’s interesting. It’s friendly. You don’t need a food encyclopedia to understand the dishes.”
And while the Nelson family drew inspiration from their travels around the world, they also found one archetype much closer to home: the Chicago pub.
“I’ve always found those corner bars more compelling than the newest nightclub. That thing sparked curiosity in the community,” David Nelson said. It enhances people’s lives and also makes great food.”
The dining room will feature occasional live music, provided from time to time by the restaurant’s namesake: Jack’s 17-year-old son, a Whitney Young Magnet High School senior and jazz musician. When he’s not in school or playing music, he’ll be working part-time at the restaurant as a dishwasher.
Nelson also believed that the name Jack reflected the atmosphere they were trying to create. They did not want a fancy French word that people might forget or find difficult to pronounce.
“French names can be intimidating…but everyone knows Jack or his classmate by the name Jack,” said Michelle Nelson.
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 out as a neighborhood chef in the 1990s before moving to restaurants across town.
“The first place I cooked for anyone else and got paid for it was at a jazz club called a Pop Shop in Division and Wood,” said Holderman. “I’ve had to cook for a lot of jazz musicians and make some black-eyed peas and things like that, but I’ve always liked Wicker Park.”
The Nelsons hope their restaurant will become a neighborhood staple, the kind of place the family goes to when their kid returns from college or where the couple stops for a date night.
“What David and I have learned over the years is that for the first time food leads us to a restaurant. What brings you back is good service, a good environment and a good memory,” said Michelle Nelson. “A good dining experience, that’s what brings people back.”
Jack’s Wicker Park will be open for lunch and dinner from 11am to 11pm on weekdays and 11am to midnight on weekends.
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