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Restaurant Tue Mar 04 2014

Change Comes to the Heartland Cafe

heartland.pngIt's hard to live in Rogers Park and not know about the Heartland Café. Some might call it impossible. The restaurant is considered the political and arts cornerstone of the area. One of the unspoken duties that come with living in the neighborhood is having a working knowledge of the iconic restaurant's nearly 40-year history. For instance, did you know the Heartland Café is where then Senator Barack Obama announced his intention to run for President? With that kind of responsibility it's easy to see why change might cause a fuss, and there has been a lot of change at the Heartland Café of late.

Many will recall back in 2010 when it was reported that the restaurant was perilously close to shutting its doors for good. A fundraising campaign was started to resuscitate the restaurant and its tiny empire, which includes the the Heartland Studio Theatre, Red Line Tap, and No Exit Café. The unorthodox move worked and the restaurant continues to assert its influence, but the story doesn't end there. More recently the restaurant was purchased by Tom Rosenfeld, a longtime resident of Rogers Park.

Rosenfeld, owner of Earth First Farms in Michigan, is hoping to take the restaurant piece of the Heartland Café to the next level. While the cultural and political importance of the restaurant has grown many would agree that the focus on food has waned in recent years. When the restaurant began, its focus on healthy, sustainable, mostly vegetarian fare was unique. Now that we're 37 years away from that beginning the Heartland has competition. To combat getting lost, Rosenfeld has hired Kim Gracen, formerly of The Chicago Diner, to help bring the Heartland Café up to date.

The two have worked together to focus the menu on a Midwestern theme. The Southwestern-style foods are gone and have been replaced with more traditionally Midwestern items like a pulled turkey sandwich called "The Barnyard," meatloaf, and maple glazed tofu. There are also a couple of new breakfast items (which, by the way, can now be ordered all day long) including eggs & fritters (my personal favorite), and breakfast pie. If you're a regular of the Heartland don't worry, old favorites such as the buffalo burger, red and black been chili, the buckwheat pancakes and other staples can still be found on the menu.

As someone who has lived in Rogers Park for a number of years, I was very nervous about the idea of change coming to the Heartland Café. Not because I didn't think that improvements couldn't or shouldn't be made. My concern is that the old granola spirit of the place would be lost in a total transformation of the restaurant. I am happy to report that the Heartland Café is in good hands. If you haven't been in a while, you should come back for a visit. If you've never been, what are you waiting for? The recent menu changes are definite improvements and are just the refresh that The Heartland Café needed.


Jennifer / March 4, 2014 4:23 PM

How/when did then-Senator Obama announce his presidential intentions at the Heartland Café? The Tribune doesn't seem to have any articles in their archives documenting this. And I remember his official announcement in Springfield.

Scott / March 4, 2014 4:33 PM

I used to go to Heartland but stopped once they were closed by city a few years ago for health code violations. Instead of instantly making changes they instead pushed back and complained about being targeted.

amyc / March 6, 2014 9:02 AM

I quit going after the shut down as well -- that, and the "fundraising" campaign, which was apparently necessitated by Michael James owing tens of thousands in overdraft fees (he complained to the Trib at the time that he "didn't know how banks worked." Dude, you ran a restaurant for 35 years and you didn't know how banks worked?)

But I've been back a few times with new owner and new menu, and the food and atmosphere have greatly improved. I really want the Heartland to succeed as a neighborhood place, and I'm glad James & Hogan's influence has lessened.

Those eggs and fritters are fantastic, but you should clear your schedule after eating them because you're going to want a long nap.

Tom / March 11, 2014 12:46 AM

The banksters have brought down many successful businesses!

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