The Homestead on 1625 Hinman Ave. is a quaint, white apartment-style hotel that happens to be home to a restaurant with a near-perfect Yelp rating. In a food-heavy town like Evanston, this might seem like no big deal, but peeling back the layers of history in this dining room is like consulting a Who’s Who of chefs and restaurateurs who’ve made a name for themselves nationwide.
The Homestead is the last of nine apartment hotels in Evanston from the 1920s to maintain its original purpose, according to its co-owner David Reynolds, and its dining room has always adapted to suit the dining needs of Evanston residents. What is now Hearth was once Quince, an Evanston favorite, and before that Trio Atelier, where Grant Achatz and Curtis Duffy, of three-Michelin starred Alinea and Grace, respectively, once worked.
Medill senior Katherine Richter, who is a hostess at Hearth, says many customers come in knowing about Quince, Trio and even Cafe Provençal, which came before the two.
“A lot of our servers have really committed that past information by heart because people really will ask about the former chefs here,” Richter says. The story begins in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where soon-to-be Evanston resident Leslee Reis worked her way up from washing dishes to prepping for Julia Child, the chef credited for introducing French cooking to America. Later, Reis studied at Le Cordon Bleu, a culinary arts and hospitality management school in Paris.
About a decade later, Reis moved to Evanston and brought fine dining to the North Shore. With a partner, she opened Cafe Provençal in The Homestead’s dining room in 1977. She consistently served authentic French cuisine and in 1988, Zagat Survey named Cafe Provençal the fifth best restaurant in America.
“There were some lunch places and some not-so fancy dinner places,” Reynolds says, “but she really brought a new level of cuisine to Evanston.”
Reis died in 1990, and the cafe closed a couple years later, but that was not the end of the story. Reynolds had a conversation with Henry Adaniya, Reis’ maître d’ who wanted to start his own restaurant. Adaniya established Trio in 1993 with two partners. Together, they set out to change the course of fine dining. The menu featured elaborately plated dishes, foods stacked on top of other foods for visual appeal and condiments appealing to both sight and taste. These have become staples of today’s restaurant tables and Instagram feeds, but Trio was doing it before it was cool.
“It was the beginning of artistic food. It was the beginning of the swirl of whatever sauce is on the plate,” Reynolds says. “A lot of that really originated in this kitchen.”
Two years after opening, Adaniya found himself on his own after his partners left to open their own restaurant, but he had plans to bring in Grant Achatz. At the time, Achatz was a young chef making waves at The French Laundry in Napa Valley, widely acknowledged as one of the best restaurants in the world. Much like those who came before him, Achatz had big ideas (it was the dawn of molecular gastronomy, or using scientific principles to experiment and play with food’s elements), and Trio would let him bring them to life.
“[Adaniya] is a great visionary for being able to find the young and talented cooks and give them a stage to stand on to have their own voice,” says Curtis Duffy, who worked at Trio as a savory cook and then a pastry chef before opening Grace in 2012.
Duffy reached out to Achatz to work at Trio so he could surround himself with someone who had worked at The French Laundry. While he doesn’t think there was a pivotal moment that defined his career, he credits the chefs at Trio, especially Achatz, for shaping his career and letting him experiment and craft in the world of food and wine.
Trio provided a pivotal moment for Achatz when customer Nick Kokonas decided to go into business with Achatz after tasting his cooking. In 2004, Achatz left Trio to open Alinea, which, like Trio, became a Mobil five-star restaurant during Achatz’s tenure. Alinea, along with Duffy’s Grace, are the only restaurants with three Michelin stars in Chicago.
Back in Evanston, Trio Atelier closed, and Reynolds knew it was important something take its place. Food and hospitality are closely linked, he explains; you’d offer guests food if they were staying at your home, wouldn’t you? The Homestead’s general manager Tina Warnke suggested they open and run their own restaurant. So with no formal restaurant experience but extensive hospitality experience, the two opened Quince in 2006.
Quince featured modern American meals with an international twist such as pork paired with tropical fruits and sticky rice. A single dish had many components, all carefully selected and combined to make every bite different and exciting. While there were weekend regulars, weekday traffic couldn’t sustain the business, and Reynolds saw the market for mid-tier fine dining in the suburbs diminishing.
As a response to the changing market, they closed Quince in August 2015 and opened Hearth in mid-November. Hearth continues the tradition of good food but does it at a lower price and in a more casual environment. The menu features halibut with bok choy and fried rice, duck jambalaya and mushroom ravioli with pesto.
Opening a new restaurant in such a hallowed space is choosing big shoes to fill, but Hearth isn’t trying to be like Quince or Trio. Instead, Hearth is blazing its own trail by focusing on the dining experience and building good relations with its diners. To John “Woody” Linton, Hearth’s executive chef, this means asking diners how the food is, taking feedback and making small gestures like a handwritten card or complimentary wine.
While Linton is aware of the dining room’s rich history and the legacy he could leave behind, he’s laser-focused on the present.
“I try not to think about legacy until it’s over,“ Linton says. “You’re only as good as the last meal you cooked.”
Brian Torres contributed reporting.