David Shopiro is talkative and a touch distracted while he deals with the handful of customers who walk into his shop on a recent Saturday morning. The restaurant formerly known as Orly’s was rechristened the Hyde Park Barbecue and Bakery earlier this year, and Shopiro, its owner for 27 years, waits on a trickle of regulars and the occasional curious passersby. After a series of failed reinventions and menu changes over the last decade, Shopiro realized he was ready to move on and made the following offer on Craigslist this August: “Owner of 30 years in newly renovated central location wants to phase out and just focus on catering…the restaurant operation will be your ship to steer.” Offering control over the kitchen and all front-of-the-house operations, Shopiro’s only requirement was $75,000 in operating capital. Shopiro says he received about a dozen serious offers among over one hundred responses. He says he’s currently negotiating with two “classically trained New Orleans chefs” who want to renovate the dining room, overhaul the menu, and convert the bakery display cases into a bar offering several craft beers on tap as part of a deal he hopes to close by November.
A Hyde Park native and University of Chicago Laboratory Schools graduate, Shopiro opened Orly’s after entering the restaurant business on a lark while his wife completed an undergraduate degree at the University of Chicago. Shopiro’s sister introduced him to restaurant guru Rich Melman, founder of the Lettuce Entertain You group that was then in its infancy. Shopiro approached Melman with a combination of swagger and humility, admitting that he had no knowledge of the industry but offering up hustle and cheap labor. “I told Rich Melman, you won’t have me forever, but I’ll work and I’ll work my ass off.” Melman then introduced Shopiro to James Errant, the proprietor of two North Side restaurants: Jasand’s, named jointly for Errant and his wife Sandy, and Chicago Claim Company, a mining-themed eatery where diners staked their “claim” to dishes like “Stagecoach Chicken” and wonton-wrapped mozzarella sticks served on faux mining pans alongside the ubiquitous “claim sauce”–a mix of ketchup, tomato paste, orange zest, garlic, and honey.
While working for Errant at Jasand’s, South Side real estate developer Elzie Higginbottom approached Shopiro and offered him a lease on his current location at 55th and Hyde Park Boulevard. Shopiro agreed, renovating a space that had previously housed insurance and real estate offices.
Orly’s was a bona fide hit when it opened in 1981. A positive review in the Hyde Park Herald lavished praise on its hip decor and dishes like the exotic Maygusta–a bit of Mexican kitsch in the form of a taco salad with cashews–that was described by Herald restaurant critic Maggie Kast as “Shopiro’s most original dinner entree.” Kast’s review noted some other offbeat flourishes, like an orange slice adorned with chocolate mousse, served alongside entrees whose menu descriptions promised “a delicious surprise.”
Around the same time, Shopiro’s marriage dissolved, and he separated from his wife six months after opening. Bob O’Brien was a former Claim Company co-worker and minority partner in Orly’s. By 1987, however, O’Brien decided to trade the predictable but exhausting rhythms of the restaurant business for suburban life, helping to raise a family in La Grange. In talking about his old friend, Shopiro is openly wistful. “I’m jealous,” he says. His own marriage, he explains, “wasn’t self-sustaining,” and despite an amicable split, he’s no longer in contact with his ex-wife.
By the mid ‘90s, Orly’s once trendy interior began to look dated. Shopiro’s attention increasingly turned towards catering private parties and UofC-sponsored events. At the same time, he was coping with the effects of Crohn’s disease, a chronic bowel disorder. His attention was sporadic: he’d try to revive the restaurant through a menu overhaul or name change without addressing the underlying neglect. “The different concepts and the different menus we did were always an attempt to put a Band-Aid on it,” he said. By the time he came up with the restaurant’s current barbecue schtick, he realized it wasn’t working, calling his decision to tell the Hyde Park Herald he was rolling out a new menu his “biggest mistake–basically everybody yawned.”
It’s hard to view Shopiro’s latest plan with the same optimism he does: reinvention is only interesting up to a point, and Orly’s passed that point a long time ago. The difference, he says, is that “I knew this place needed to be a new restaurant, and that I couldn’t do it myself.” If turning control of the kitchen over to an enthusiastic young chef turns out to be all Orly’s needed, Shopiro may have finally struck gold. But in the notoriously difficult restaurant industry, where high fixed costs lead to slim margins for even the best-managed restaurants, the biggest boom towns can frequently turn bust.