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From vintage jukeboxes to Southern-inspired Mexican comfort foods, Dove’s Luncheonette serves all dayparts, and loyal guests come often.

By Ellen Koteff October 2015

Adiner with a retro vibe, set to a backdrop of 1960s and ’70s soul and blues, Dove’s Luncheonette serves Southern-inspired Mexican cuisine that’s earning kudos from repeat guests and first-timers alike.

The 41-stool restaurant in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood doesn’t take reservations and is open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner seven days a week. General manager Sarah Humphreys says some neighborhood customers show up for multiple meals in a single day, enjoying an atmosphere that stays true to Paul Kahan’s One Off Hospitality Group’s lineup of unique concepts.

“We are continuing to operate in the groove that we have etched out for ourselves,” Humphreys says. “We want to be a place where people come for breakfast and then back for dinner.”

The restaurant’s name is inspired by the character Dove Linkhorn in the 1956 Nelson Algren novel A Walk on the Wild Side. Algren lived in Wicker Park from 1959 to 1975, and his book provided the owners of Dove’s Luncheonette with memorable quotes such as: “Never eat at a place called Mom’s.”

Dove’s, which opened in September 2014, doesn’t suffer from any of the same apprehension. Humphreys says Dove’s Luncheonette “is right on target” to meet first-year projections: Tickets average $20, and the restaurant does between 275 and 300 covers daily, up to 325 for brunch. Food costs are running about 27 percent.

“In the beginning we were trying to attract commuters by opening at 7 a.m.,” Humphreys says. “What we found is that they were only interested in commuting.” As a result, Dove’s now opens at 9 a.m., and revenues have remained the same.

Best-selling dishes include Chicken Fried Chicken—buttermilk-fried chicken smothered in chorizo verde gravy with sweet peas and pearl onions; Enchilada de Cochinillo with corn tortilla and roasted suckling pig with mole verde, queso fresco, cilantro, onions, pepitas, and chicharrones; and The Smoked Brisket Hash with two eggs and Texas toast, which runs as a special but is almost always available.

“The reaction to our food has been very positive, and that is somewhat surprising given how critical people can be today,” says Dennis Bernard, the chef de cuisine. “Our food is simple and straightforward. We were trying to fill a gap in the neighborhood because there was no diner.”

The positive response was immediate.

“We were hoping to kind of open slowly and let people take their time coming in, but since day one it has been full throttle,” Humphreys says.

Customers also line up for Dove’s unique beverage menu, which produces about 30 percent of the restaurant’s revenue. Beverages on tap are a key component, including pressurized coffee stored in kegs and served from the tap—with an espresso cup as the pull handle—allowing the luncheonette to skip the typical brewing and chilling times. Additionally, there are four lines of beer on tap. The beverage menu rounds out with a mix of teas, 10 varieties of bottled beer, a tequila- and mezcal-focused bar program, and 12 wines—which sell for $7 a glass or bottles priced up to $50.

In its first year, Dove’s has had to evolve its service.

“When we first opened, we thought it would be more hands-off,” Humphreys says. “We had to bulk up our service quite a bit and do things like hire bar-backs. Now we are running like a full-service restaurant, but that’s not what we thought initially. We have finessed the service so that there are more people paying attention to each guest.”

The restaurant employs 36 people—28 of them in the front of the house.

Before opening, Chef Bernard says, they considered featuring only four dishes, but the menu has evolved to 18 items over time. “We are following the seasons a little more and using more flavors,” he says.

Located adjacent to sister restaurant, Big Star, the two operations share a commissary. “All of the cooking for Dove’s is done in the commissary,” Bernard says. “We have only four burners in our restaurant.”

As part of the One Off Hospitality Group, which includes popular brands like avec, Blackbird, The Violet Hour, and The Publican, Dove’s can tap into a variety of resources.

“We are part of a big group and we are working with pros every day, but the crazy thing is when you open a new restaurant, things that worked in another restaurant don’t necessarily work in the new one,” Humphreys says.

You really have to make the restaurant its own. It needs to have an identity.”