“What do you want with your vodka?” asked Jerry Kleiner, as I sat down with him and his kids at his South Loop restaurant Room 21. Tempted to ask for vodka with my vodka, I asked for an iced tea instead. Better to stay sober when interviewing the mogul of such heavy-hitting eateries like Giocco, Opera, MarchÃ©, Red Light, and now, Park 52, located in Harper Court at 52nd Street, and scheduled to open in early March 2008. Given Kleiner’s characteristic belatedness, April seems like a more plausible opening date.
The buzz about Park 52 is justified–the blog Hyde Park Progress is particularly enamored of the place–because of Jerry Kleiner’s history. The man has been cited as the catalyst for the development of the South Loop restaurant district with his Opera, Giocco, and Room 21, all higher-class eateries catering to a more affluent clientele, unusual for the far South Loop. Room 21 is located a stone’s throw from a Chicago Housing Authority housing project, and Harper Court isn’t exactly West Loop, either. One would think that people willing to drop up a hundred or so on a meal for two wouldn’t dare venture out to the South Loop, or even Hyde Park–but Kleiner seems to have succeeded in extracting those people out of downtown.
Uncommon neighborhood choices are what Kleiner’s restaurants are known for. Yet, he says that he’s not parading into Hyde Park on his high horse: “I’m not creating any big waves like, well I’m coming in here, I’m the messiah. I felt there was need in the community [for Park 52],” citing “tremendous neighborhood interest.” Originally named Hyde Park Grille, the new place was renamed Park 52 after residents complained that the name was “too common.” The classic American restaurant is on 52nd and Harper, at the end of Harper court, and he alludes to the many parks in and around Hyde Park–Washington Park, Nichols Park, Jackson Park, not to mention Hyde Park’s title–in his name selection.
The choice of location was inspired by his habit of visiting different neighborhoods in Chicago, and Kleiner calls himself “a studier of Chicago history … I know Hyde Park really well, and it has tremendous history.” He says that he eats out seven meals a week, and used to drive through Hyde Park “and try to find places to eat; there’s never very many.” He is a fan of La Petite Folie and, more unexpectedly, Rajun Cajun. Still, he didn’t “find a restaurant in Hyde Park that really has a bar setting, comfort food American stuff that’s done [by a] chef and presented well, like in some of my other restaurants.” He envisions the restaurant as having a “clubby sort of feeling,” where people from the community can come together.
Despite his insistence that he’s “not looking to stir any waves,” when Park 52 was first announced in early 2006, people expected Kleiner to wave his wand again over the Hyde Park restaurant scene. But delays plagued the development of the restaurant, each time pushing the grand opening further into the future. This may have been compounded by the fact that Kleiner, at any given moment, is working on at least a half-dozen projects at a time.
Park 52 is his seventh restaurant with his KDK restaurant group (one of his many groups), and he estimates that he’s built around forty buildings since 1982. As for projects on the horizon, it seems best to let the man speak for himself: “I’ve got multiple projects. I’m designing hotels; I’m doing stuff all over the world. So Hyde Park will be the seventh, and I got a place in Hinsdale opening up this summer, that’s eighth, and doing a place on North Wells Street, that’s nine, and Chicago Illuminating Company, a big banquet facility, that’s my tenth project. I have my own design and manufacturing company.” He adds, “I’m building Karnivals [Kleiner’s nightclubs] in a few places, one in Orlando, one in Atlanta, and one in the Bahamas. Working on stuff in Las Vegas, in Dubai…besides, I’m working on three hotel projects, with restaurants in those hotels. So, that’s the short list.”
Kleiner attributes Park 52’s delay between conception and construction to building problems, explaining that it was “very difficult building … it’s a concrete structure–the whole building is concrete.” He seems to have run into the same problem as Hyde Park Produce, another buzz-laden business in Hyde Park that faced major delays because of deficiencies in the original structure. He complains, “There was nothing there. We had to dig out major trenches, and this and that. The construction was very difficult.”
The finished product is a handsome blue-bricked building right behind the Checkerboard Lounge. Kleiner is known for the design of his restaurants, and his hope with Park 52 is “to achieve something that has history, something that won’t offend the community at all … a very comfortable, stylish place…Not sterile, not modern, but warm.” He claims that Park 52 will be “priced reasonably, affordable for the community, not downtown prices…you want people to feel that they can eat at this place like two or three times a week.” The menu includes “Great Caesar salads, bleu cheese wedges, chicken, fish, meat, meatloaf, shrimp”–standard grill fare. He later specifies that entrÃ©e prices will be in the teens to high 30s, so it seems like Park 52 clientele from the community will probably end up being professors, grad students, and professionals.
In many ways, Kleiner’s prognostications are spot-on: “I think it’s a great community and it’s just ready to take off. It’s been a sleepy little community for many years.” He approves of the closure of the Co-op, joining the ranks of most of the University community: “That co-op, I’ve been in there a couple times and it’s just embarrassing, the quality of their product. What’s the point of that, when you’re endangering people’s lives by serving bad food that’s handled improperly?” The indignation then turns into a tinge of condescension: “I think it’s time for the community to start elevating itself.”