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The Man in the Mercedes

Jerry Kleiner's specialty is charging into industrial neighborhoods with flashy concept restaurants. But his latest challenge is a little different: notoriously flash-resistant Hyde Park.



Jerry Kleiner is standing inside Loncar Liquors, an old-man bar on the corner of Brandon and 92nd Street. He motions at the chicken in the deep fryer behind the bar. "They use pure lard," he says approvingly. The employees at the counter, a few of whom look like they've been around since the bar opened in 1924, have stopped working to stare at Kleiner. He's wearing a red windbreaker over a blue Puma sweatshirt, brown Nike warm-up pants, and white wing tips. His steel blue architect glasses slope down his nose. "I'm just showing my friend this place," Kleiner says, waving at his surroundings. The staff slowly nods.

Kleiner's made a career of turning up in unlikely places. Fifteen years ago his restaurant Vivo opened on a raw stretch of West Randolph in the meatpacking district. Dozens of restaurants followed, including the typically theatrical Kleiner productions Red Light and Marche. At the end of the 90s he led a similar parade into the South Loop, opening Gioco, then Opera, on South Wabash. Now Kleiner's moving farther south. This June he plans to open a 160-seat "eclectic American" restaurant in a former Women's Workout World off Harper and 52nd Street in Hyde Park. In the other half of the nondescript building, owned by the University of Chicago, is the generic new incarnation of the Checkerboard Lounge blues club.

It's as unlikely a location for a flashy restaurateur as West Randolph once was. And though Kleiner claims to love the neighborhood, he also talks about himself as its savior: "Somebody like me needs to set the bar for the community. Somebody needs to take a shot at it." The contradiction--I love you, you're perfect, now change--is essential to understanding Jerry Kleiner. He genuinely loves the untrendy, but his business is capitalizing on the implicit trendiness of it. He seeks out neighborhood joints for their authenticity, but his restaurants have been successful because they're not part of any neighborhood--they're an escape from what's outside. At Marche the diner enters through a ceiling-high velvet curtain, like an actor going onstage.

Kleiner, who's 50, is athletic and radiates a breezy confidence. You'd never know that 20 years ago his entrepreneurial career started with a stumble when a condo development of his collapsed and a nightclub he co-owned, Cairo, had to be sold off at a loss. But shortly after that Kleiner formed a partnership with lawyer Howard Davis and stockbroker Dan Krasny and began his game of hopscotch down Randolph Street. Eventually it was the partnership that missed: Krasny, who'd run Vivo, sued Davis and Kleiner in 1999 alleging that they'd overcharged for services (an eventual settlement gave Krasny control of the restaurant in exchange for his shares in others). Then in 2003 Davis and Kleiner broke off their partnership, and Davis sued. Kleiner dismisses the breakup as the result of "a different point of view." (Davis didn't return calls for comment.) They still own four restaurants together.

Judging from his current workload, Kleiner wasn't hurt by the split. Carnivale, his six-month-old pan-Latino restaurant on Fulton, is his biggest operation yet--it seats 420, and the staff numbers 150. Last summer he opened the Victor Hotel, a sleek grown-up lounge, in the West Loop. And he's scouting for locations in Garfield Park, Lawndale, and Gary, Indiana, as well as on the south side.

"I'm an explorer of Chicago," Kleiner says, sitting in Carnivale. The bar behind him is padded like a red leather banquette. "At the end of my day I like getting into my car and just driving neighborhoods, going to little places in the communities--little markets, little divey places that've been around 50 to 60 years. I go check out the fanciest restaurants, but I'm still a down-to-earth little grunge rat." The grunge rat does most of his dive-to-dive driving these days in a black Mercedes convertible.

There are three things to know about riding around town with Kleiner. The first is that he takes a lot of calls. The second is that when he gets excited, which is frequently, he takes both hands off the steering wheel and revolves them around each other like a barrel rolling. The third is that the man knows the south side. He reels off exact addresses for obscure diners and pizzerias in Bridgeport and South Chicago. He knows so many restaurants that haven't changed in half a century he could lead a culinary tour of the city circa JFK. On the other hand, he's all over every bit of construction and renovation.

"Look at this, look at this," he says, driving along a stretch of Cottage Grove. "These are single-family homes starting at $800,000. Who the fuck's buying these? Look at those town houses. Every one of these is being rehabbed. Every one. It's unbelievable." It irritates him that no one he knows ventures down here. "They think those neighborhoods are bad ghetto-infested communities that are just rough and unsafe. I want to change all that."

Infamously fine-dining poor, Hyde Park presents a different kind of challenge. Even Kleiner complains about the retrograde aesthetic sensibilities of Hyde Parkers--"Where they are now there's no real fashion or design." When the U. of C. recruited Kleiner to the Hyde Park property over two years ago, he wasn't taken by it. "It's like, what is this shit! What an ugly effing building!" He's since gutted it, knocking out more than half a wall to put in a series of huge French doors. The renovated space will have a dark hardwood floor, custom-made furniture, silk light fixtures, and a "bookcase of wine" along the back. The menu's described as comfort food with a twist. "My feeling is to create something that has a little bit of flair to it, but not too much," Kleiner says, calling it "a sophisticated approach to nonsophistication."

Shortly after the Hyde Park space unlocks its mahogany doors, Kleiner will open his tenth restaurant, also still unnamed ("I always name everything afterwards," he says), on 21st Street, in a turn-of-the-century power plant a mile south of his other South Loop restaurants. In the renovated banquet space iron columns stretch from floor to ceiling, a 35-foot span. Behind the bar there are 12 shelves ascending to the roof, unreachable bottles of Grey Goose on each. The color scheme is dichromatic, a chessboard of black and white. It looks like a superhero's lair.

Next door the actual restaurant is being worked on. It's scheduled to open in late summer, but Kleiner still hasn't decided on what many restaurateurs settle first: the menu. "As I get closer to it," he says, "I'll figure out the food."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.

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