In naming her restaurant Flo, Renee Carswell declared her intentions with a play on words. On one level the name alludes to Brasserie Flo, the famous Parisian eatery effervescing with bons vivants. Then there's "flow" as explored by author and University of Chicago professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi: the state of total involvement and joy achieved during inner-directed experiences. And the conversation at this neighborhood hangout flows, too. "I wanted something short and memorable, like the Gap," says Carswell.
Carswell, who opened her convivial West Town restaurant in 1998, once thought she would make pots, not stir them: she has an undergraduate degree in painting and drawing from the University of New Mexico at Albuquerque and has studied with renowned potter Betty Woodman in Boulder, Colorado. As with other women who were hippies in the 60s and struggled to find their footing as the decades progressed, her career path has been as colorful and variegated as the African beads she once sold. "I'm basically an artist with a short attention span that didn't realize I was an entrepreneur until I was about 45," she says. Husband and business partner Rodney Carswell, on the other hand, sees Flo as a kind of full-circle return to the couple's summers working at his parents' restaurant, the Shed.
The Carswells met as undergraduate art majors at UNM, and their part-time positions at the restaurant Rodney's parents opened in an old burro shed in Sante Fe in 1954 marked the first of a slew of odd jobs for Renee. "In Boulder, I was the cashier at the city dump," she says. She earned a master's in ceramics at Illinois State University in Normal and showed her wire and clay wall constructions and drawings in Chicago's Nancy Lurie Gallery. She also ran a cafeteria at State Farm Insurance headquarters in Bloomington, where she worked with developmentally challenged adults.
In 1980, the two artists made the move to New York City, into a loft on Broome Street. Rodney--who had been a tenured professor of painting and drawing at ISU--took a job as a truck driver, meat slicer, and salad preparer at Zabar's while Renee worked at another deli and plastered lofts. For several years they traveled back to Sante Fe to work more summers at the Shed, but when their daughter was born they decided they needed a more stable situation. They contemplated running the food concession in a "burger jukebox joint" on Houston Street. Instead, Rodney secured a job teaching at UIC (he's currently a professor in the School of Art and Design) and the couple moved to Oak Park. It was 1983.
Suddenly Renee had the chance to be a full-time mother if she wished. Or get a job in a gallery. She was leaning toward going back for another degree when a friend pointed out that she would be entering the job market at 51. "That's when I decided to open the bead shop," she says.
Bead in Hand opened in Oak Park in 1994. The shop did well, and Renee wanted to start selling clothing too, but when her partner didn't want to expand, Renee moved on. Going back to her restaurant roots, she opened Flo in the front half of Rodney's studio on Chicago Avenue.
Initially she contemplated a little coffeehouse where she could serve muffins. But when the turn-of-the-century space turned out to need a total rehab, Renee and Rodney decided to put in a ventilation hood. "That was the nail in the coffin. It got to be a real business faster than I wanted it to," she says.
Rodney moved his studio elsewhere, and Renee offered a real menu in a neighborhood where cheap rents attracted artists, writers, designers, and photographers. Open for breakfast, lunch, and weekend brunch, Flo soon became an intellectual island of sorts. As the Carswells' restaurant flourished, so did the neighborhood, and these days Renee is part of a community network that works to save local architectural treasures from the wrecking ball. "We have a really active group of neighborhood people here," she says.
In a cheerful environment housing folk art, local artists' work, and the Carswells' antique pencil collection, Renee manages daily operations while Rodney handles the business end and coordinates ongoing art exhibits. He also plans the menu, with Guatemalan chef Alberto Gramajo adding his own ideas. "It's a kind of cult food," says Rodney. "I call it urban eclectic, made from scratch, with fresh ingredients, with a Latino twist. We're probably literally the only place in Chicago that has red chili imported from New Mexico."
With chilies and blue corn tortillas as the main carryovers from his parents' restaurant, Rodney often works like a painter recombining elements in new configurations: green chili chicken enchiladas, portobello quesadillas, "green eggs." In a kind of mini heresy, Flo's green sauce ignores tomatillos and instead requires roasting 40 pounds of poblanos a week. Egg twist bread for their French toast comes from Alliance Bakery, and preservative-free tequila-chicken-black bean sausage from Han's. Renee buys organic blue corn tortillas retail to avoid getting versions colored with blue dye. Like Rodney's parents, who bought from neighboring farmers, Renee would love to use local organics if distribution were easier.
It's the brunch specials where geometric abstract painter Rodney expresses his buried love of extravagance. His portobello polenta swims in hollandaise. Poblano chipotle cream douses his square tamales. And a river of poblano chili sauce flows over the "Flo Bowl," full of black beans, grilled potatoes, poached eggs, and pico de gallo.
"We're proudest of our sauces," Rodney says.
Flo is at 1434 W. Chicago, 312-243-0477.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dorothy Perry.