X Marks the Spot: Inside Treasure Island, “the most European grocery store in America”

What else could you possibly want to know about the Hyde Park grocery situation? If you’ve been following so much as the everGreen, you probably know why the Co-Op Market has closed its automatic doors for good, that soon a Treasure Island location will replace it, and what deeper issues Hyde Park’s little game of musical grocery stores has dredged up. But one question remains unaddressed by the neighborhood media: What the hell is a Treasure Island?

On a day so cold that polar bears reportedly stayed in their dens at the Lincoln Park Zoo, this investigative reporter took the most perilous shopping trip in recent memory to Treasure Island’s Wells Street location on the North Side to find out. Just as I was sure my extremities would snap off, I caught sight of the word “Bonjour” carved into the sidewalk. This was the first sign of Treasure Island, whose motto, taken from the praises of Julia Child, reads “The most European supermarket in America.” (If the slogan seems a tad ridiculous, just think back to “A Love Affair with Wonderful Foods.”)

How European is Treasure Island? Enough to have the full line of Walkers Shortbread products, but none of Tunnocks’. Enough to carry Tetley tea, but not Jaffa Cakes. Internationally-inclined shelves, marked with floor tiles reading “German,” “Greek,” and “Italian,” stock a decent selection of pasta, tea biscuits, and even Swedish pancake mix.

You won’t have to order your Easy Cheese from a catalogue, though. Treasure Island carries all the Yank brands you’re used to–the organization of the store just promotes an Old World façade. While boxes of San Pellegrino figure into a prominent display, shelves of American-brand sodas are relegated to an alcove with nothing but a pale neon “Pop Shop” sign to hint at their presence. For the most part, you’ll only find the unabashedly American products in the innermost aisles. Some notable exceptions do occur–pouches of duck liver mousse with cognac, for example, are stocked right next to the Lunchables meal boxes.

Most critics of the Co-Op complained of two things: bad food and bad prices. Treasure Island will solve half the problem. While you’ll spend about as much there as you did at the Co-Op, you’ll get a better bite for your buck. The variety and quality of food made in the store is certainly a step up. The deli showed off steaming pots of stew and enormous plates of grape leaves, caviar spread, and crab meat salad. A glass case displaying “Mama K’s” homemade Greek pastries featured reasonably priced butter cookies and baklava. As for the produce–well, it’s about as healthy as you could expect in the dead of January.

More than it is European, Robert Louis Stevenson, or anything else, Treasure Island is a store for cooks–or at least it sells itself that way. The check-out counters even stock issues of Saveur, Bon Apetit, and Cooks Illustrated interspersed with Cosmo and People. If you thought the Co-Op had too few bottled spices or satchels of dried mushrooms, you’ll warm to Treasure Island in no time. A counter stocked with jars full of fifteen varieties of fresh olives introduced me to the olive bar concept. Samples are everywhere you look, too–I could have eaten my bus fare’s worth of ten different cheeses, spinach dip, chicken salsa, and balsamic cocoa syrup.

Organic food lovers will continue to fork over good money for their forkfuls, but the occasional item will come cheaper. While gluten-free cake and brownie mixes run at about $6 a bag, prices are reduced on Morningstar Farms products, and organic milk comes over a dollar less per gallon than it did at the Co-Op. I marveled over organic eggs at $3.39 a dozen as “Beat It” played over the PA.

For the broke college crowd, the same items you got by on at the Co-Op will continue to sustain you when Treasure Island takes over. The sanctity of two-for-$5 boxes of cereal, 65-cent packs of tortilla, and $1.49 loaves of bread remains untouched. The liquor section contains as many bottles as the average liquor store, and a decent number of wine bottles recommended either by The Wine Advocate or resident expert “Tracy” were in the $9-12 range.

Is it worth paying so much attention to the finer points of a grocery store? While better goods don’t necessarily translate to a flourishing community, Treasure Island will be the place where most of Hyde Park will buy its food, so its character and quality certainly count for something. Thankfully, there’s reason to hope the new store will have more of these things than the Co-Op did.