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Wishbone's Rise From Grits to Gravy



Joel Nickson had a simple mission: to create a neighborhood hangout that served healthy, affordable southern cooking. Though raised in New Mexico and New Jersey, he learned to love the south through visits to his grandparents in North Carolina. At age 15 he ran away from home to live and work for a year and a half with a family who operated Pauline's Passion Pit, a Harlem soul food restaurant. A dozen years later, having amassed a solid cooking background that included culinary school, stints in elegant San Francisco restaurants, and terms as food and beverage manager at several large resorts, he opened Wishbone in a storefront at 1800 W. Grand in July of 1990. His "southern reconstruction cooking"--Dixie standards like baked bone-in-ham, blackened catfish, and Carolina crab cakes, prepared with a minimum of heavy oils, deep frying, or added sugar--with its mix-and-match menu of side dishes such as sauteed spinach, mashed sweet potatoes, and macaroni and cheese, caught on fast. After only six months in business he expanded into the back room, doubling the seating to 46. A year later--after Nickson was wooed by an interested landlord--plans for a second, larger Wishbone in the industrial area west of the Loop took off. He moved into the former Goodyear Tire Shop at 1001 W. Washington, and enlisted his artistic family to help transform it. Joel, once considered the black sheep of the family, became the glue that brought them back together. First, he convinced brother Guy, then a writer and teacher, to come on board. The brothers turned to other family members (and some friends) to finance the expansion, ultimately raising $40,000. Youngest brother Greg, a filmmaker by trade, and his wife, Bianca, an accountant and now a partner with the two older brothers, designed the interior. Artist mom Lia Nickson created bright, whimsical paintings of chickens and barnyard scenes for the walls at both locations. And family standard poodle Dolly (now deceased) lent her mug for the T-shirt.

The "Big Bone" took off like a shot. The space retained the high ceilings and windows of the original shop, but the open floor was divided into two dining rooms and a bar. Outfitted with homey Formica tabletops and casual bentwood chairs bought for $5 apiece "off a truck in Humboldt Park," it now serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner, seats 170 (90 more when sidewalk seating is available), and pays 120 employees. Purist Grand Avenue regulars called it the "Yuppie Bone," but the central location, equidistant from the north and south sides and smack in the middle of the swiftly developing media gulch anchored by neighboring Harpo Studios, ensured a regular, diverse crowd.

This November, Joel, Guy, and Bianca made another move. A year's search for a third location led to a site in Lakeview that formerly housed the Blind Faith Cafe. Then the Grand Avenue lease ran out in May, and when negotiations with the landlord foundered several months later, they closed the original Wishbone and relocated to the north side.

The Lincoln Avenue location is almost as expansive as the one on Washington; it seats 180 in an 8,000-square-foot space. The original art (as well as some staff members) from Grand Avenue gives the sleek, open room a familiar feel, but it's decidedly more upscale, with tangerine walls, exposed teal ductwork, and Lia Nickson's older, softer watercolors of fruits and vegetables displayed along one wall. The menu is just about the same, although three "late breakfast" options are available on the lunch menu in a nod to late-night workers in the neighborhood. A liquor license is still pending. They're hoping to have bar service in January--until then it's BYO. Shortly after the mid-November opening, the crowds were already coming. "We're busier at breakfast and lunch on Washington and busier here at dinnertime so far. But the weekend brunch was packed last week and the crowd was a mix of families, young people, and even some of our Grand regulars," says Bianca Nickson. Wishbone III--the Lakeview Bone--is located at 3300 N. Lincoln, 773-549-2662.

--Laura Levy Shatkin

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

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