Dining and food culture in Chicago

Dinner by Design: Erika Stone-Miller’s Journey from Architecture to Underground Dining Sensation at The Octagon Mode

Food Trucks, Ravenswood, Underground Dining No Comments »
Guests mingling at The Octagon Mode

Guests mingling at The Octagon Mode/Photo: Amber Gibson

By Amber Gibson

From the moment you step into the nondescript West Lawrence storefront, you know you’re in for a treat. The soulful live music, elegant plate ware and romantic lighting make it clear this isn’t any haphazard dinner hosted in somebody’s apartment. And owner Erika Stone-Miller is the quintessential hostess. Bubbly and vivacious, with a genuine love of people, she makes even the shyest guests feel at home at The Octagon Mode (Newcity’s pick for Best Underground Dinner in 2013). After greeting everyone like old friends, she’ll change from a chic black cocktail dress to an apron and bright orange Crocs. It’s time to get in the kitchen and start whipping up beef wellington and champagne jelly. Stone-Miller looks a decade younger than her forty-seven years, hasn’t owned a TV in twenty years, and her story is one of following your heart and the pursuit of happiness.

Stone-Miller attended Wellesley College, a women’s college in Massachusetts, graduating in 1988 with a bachelor’s degree in architecture. The name “The Octagon Mode” is a nod to her academic career, inspired by an obscure mid-nineteenth-century architectural movement. She’d always worked as a hostess or waitress, starting in Boston while she was in college. After school, she took an architectural job, but continued to work in restaurants and soon found that a career in architecture was not for her.  “I really liked it, but I sucked,” she readily admits. “I was never going to be a great architect.” Read the rest of this entry »

Shifting to Park: The Newest Trend in Food Trucking is a Storefront

Argentinian, Food Trucks, Lakeview, Pastry, Trends & Essays, West Loop No Comments »

Beavers Coffee & Donuts Drivers Side PicIf you want to get your fix of gourmet mini donuts from Beavers Coffee & Donuts, you normally look to their website or Twitter to find the food truck’s location and hours. But once Beavers opens its first storefront restaurant in the Chicago French Market in early January, you’ll know where and when to get your hot breakfast on demand.

Since the Beavers truck opened in December of last year, requests for its catering service—and for donuts after the truck’s weekday morning-through-lunch hours—grew so rapidly that co-owners Gabriel Wiesen and Jim Nuccio started planning an expansion this summer. “Logistically, it makes sense to have a storefront in conjunction with a food truck,” Wiesen says. “Being able to facilitate those requests was really hard without a store.”

Operating a food truck makes starting a brick-and-mortar restaurant a much easier task. For starters, the idea has already been tested: Food-truck owners know what sells, know who their customers are and, when scouting for locations, know where their customer-base lives. They already are making money, and they’ve built a brand that can attract investors. Read the rest of this entry »

Pancake Pioneer: Reinvention According to Leah Wilcox and her Babycakes Food Truck

Breakfast/Brunch, Food Trucks No Comments »

Leah Wilcox thought pancakes were boring, so she decided to make them more interesting. Pancakes with red wine, salted caramel, strawberry margarita, birthday cake, white-chocolate macadamia… Wilcox realized the floppy, flat breakfast food had potential, and launched Babycakes, a pancake food truck.

Every morning, Wilcox rises and goes to the Kitchen Chicago shared commercial kitchen on the West Side. She maps out her menu ideas the day before, choosing about six varieties from dozens of options that rotate daily. Since she began a food-truck business with her pancakes in March, she has come up with nearly eighty recipes.

Wilcox never had a particular fascination with flapjacks; in fact, her idea sprang from how boring she found them. “I don’t really like regular old-fashioned pancakes that much, which is part of the reason I started playing around with the recipe to make it something new and different. I am excited about doing something with pancakes that has never been done before. Plain buttermilk pancakes to me are just a little bit boring and way too filling. Since my pancakes are relatively small, about three inches in diameter, and a stack of three in each, you can get the delicious flavor without going into carb overload, and you can try a couple of them without feeling too stuffed,” she says. Read the rest of this entry »

411: Taste of Chicago Food Trucks

Food Trucks, West Loop 1 Comment »

While the fannypack set will be trucking through Grant Park this week, turkey legs and fried dough in hand, another high-octane food-sampler gathering will be revving up in the West Loop, with the debut of Ethyl’s Truckin’ Thursdays.

Ethyl’s Beer & Wine Dive, Scott Harris’ (Francesca’s) latest dining concept, will become a food truck city, a safe haven for Chicago’s gourmet meals on wheels when its spacious parking lot and patio will function as the campgrounds for seven food trucks every Thursday from 6pm-9pm. Ethyl’s founding partner Donnie Kruse thinks this is a big move for a city that has been slow to welcome the trucks to its streets.

“Food trucks are kind of a controversial thing in Chicago, however, they’re a big story. The Food Network had a show, ‘The Great Food Truck Race,’ and I spend a lot of time in Austin, Texas, Portland, Seattle and think they’re a wonderful part of the food community,” says Kruse. Read the rest of this entry »