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Counter Culture/An Egg Cream Oasis


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The Depot

5840 W. Roosevelt


The Depot isn't your ordinary greasy spoon: chef-owners Jim Perino and Robert Nava have backgrounds in fine dining. Nava, a Bronx native, conjures a nostalgic vibe at this new space occupying a longtime diner--52 years and counting--in the far-west-side enclave called the Island (because it's cut off from the rest of Austin by the Eisenhower). The menu offers egg creams--the east-coast specialty made with milk, sugar, vanilla, and seltzer water--and other homey standards like open-faced roast beef sandwiches and chicken salad, and blue-plate specials such as meat loaf or grilled pork chops with country gravy.

Perino labored in his late teens and most of his 20s as a coal miner in downstate Carlinville until he was seriously injured in an accident in the shaft. He'd always enjoyed cooking--his grandma coached him in pie baking, and on weekends he'd whip up Julia Child recipes. He had friends in Chicago, and, searching for a new line of work, he started at Kendall College in the late 80s.

Nava, on the other hand, apprenticed under a master chef, then rose to executive chef positions at the Signature Room and the Hard Rock Hotel. He and Perino met while working at the Hotel Orrington in Evanston, where Perino had gone as banquet chef after a stint at Spago. When the diner space, not far from Nava's Oak Park home, became available in October, he brought Perino on board. They spent the next few months redoing the space, decorating in shades of custard and gray; red leatherette booths line the wall opposite the counter. Above the booths are photos of old-school diners that Nava and his wife, Anamarie, have collected; above the counter are paintings by a local artist depicting the blue-plate specials. The restaurant opened in mid-January.

Kristen Lehner, who's new to the neighborhood, says she's met other residents at the diner. "It's good hearing stories from old-timers about the neighborhood and how it used to be." She hopes the restaurant will be "the beginning of a turnaround for that stretch of Roosevelt Road." Already diners have been coming from as far away as Highland Park; an exec from Ed Debevic's parent Lettuce Entertain You turned up in the first week.

The lure is clear: the food is fabulous. The chicken noodle soup is obviously homemade, with fresh chunks of carrots and celery, and it's a real deal at "$2:17" (in a bit of gimmickry, all the prices are styled like arrival and departure times). The pot roast sandwich is mounted on a substantial bun custom made by a local bakery and heaped with fried onions. It comes with coleslaw and gravy fries for $6.59.

Lasagna had a ricotta filling so fluffy it was practically a light pasta dish; a club sandwich was stacked high with fresh roasted turkey and bacon. For dessert the crowd-pleaser is red velvet cake, a mild, not terribly sweet, deep red chocolate cake with cream-cheese frosting ($3.52).

"Chefs like [Charlie] Trotter have access to dozens of assistants and the very best ingredients," says Nava. "They had better come up with great food. Me, I'm just trying to make basic dishes great."

"One customer," says Perino, "told me it's like Thanksgiving every day here. That just kills me."--David Hammond

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Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/A. Jackson.

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