Sunday, January 24, 2010

New in Hyde Park: The Big Easy-- Not Just Another Orly's

Since last fall, other Hyde Park locals and I had been closely monitoring the storefront at 55th and Hyde Park Boulevard, looking for signs of activity. Finally, about a month ago, a new awning appeared and the walls were painted (yes, I stuck my face against the glass to peek in..). A week later, a sign appears in the window advertising microbrews and Cajun fare. A week after that, lights were on and people could be seen inside eating & drinking, but it did not appear that the place had been opened to the public. It's not everyday that we get a new business or restaurant in the neighborhood, so the suspense was killing us. Finally, about 2 weeks ago, the spot finally opened officially for business under the name "The Big Easy" and Mr. Hyde Park and I rushed in to check it out.

If you're in a hurry, long story short, the food was generally very good Cajun fare reminiscent of Dixie Kitchen, the service was fine (but not great), and the place is definitely worth visiting. Check out the menu here. If you have a little longer, stick around for some history and a more detailed review:

First, the history...
1660 E 55th Street is famous (or perhaps infamous) among Hyde Parkers for its quirky history. The spot was originally purchased by David Shopiro in 1981 and, in the years since, saw several "makeovers" under his ownership. The restaurant and catering company was usually called Orly's, or most recently Hyde Park BBQ, and, in each incarnation, served up an eclectic mix of BBQ, sandwiches, Mexican and Italian cuisine, burgers, and baked goods (yes, all on the same menu). The restaurant (whatever the name) was often criticized for serving mediocre food, for having too broad a menu, and for having so-so service. While some Hyde Park locals had a strange affection for the place, most Hyde Parkers--myself included-- were just lukewarm to it, and it was never particularly successful. (And it was certainly never a place to which anyone from outside of Hyde Park would travel.) Each time the going got tough, Shopiro would announce that he was going to make the place over and then quickly re-open with essentially the same menu and decor. For this reason, Orly's became a sort of running joke in the neighborhood and fueled the negative stereotype that restaurants in Hyde Park don't have their acts together.

This summer, Shopiro announced another remodel of the place, closed its doors, and placed an ad on Craigslist seeking someone to become 90% owner of the spot and take creative control of the menu. (Fellow Hyde Park blogger Hyde Park Progress has a good post about this which provides more details--
check it out here.) After this announcement, the neighborhood had little news for several months.

Finally, this winter, we learned that Shopiro had chosen 26 year-old Jennifer Gavin for the job.
Shopiro didn't seem to publicize this as much as he could have, but not only does Gavin have classical and international training, but she was one of the last chefs standing on celebrity chef Gordon Ramsey's reality tv-show Hell's Kitchen. It's not clear, however, whether Gavin has become 90% owner as Shopiro had sought in the Craigslist ad, or if they have worked out some other arrangement. In any case, it seems that Shopiro is maintaining more involvement in the restaurant than he had initially stated he would.

Ok, so now--finally-- back to my review. Mr. Hyde Park and I had dinner there at 8:30ish on their official opening night (they'd had a soft opening earlier in the month). The interior had been upgraded and looked good, although still had some undefinable hints of the 80s. We were greeted by the same goofy, absent-minded waiter who has been there the past 10 years (which concerned us a bit, to be honest). He promptly seated us and bumbled through the Cajun-Creole menu, making mistakes like calling jambalaya "gumboyaya." We ordered a seafood chowder and the gumbo to start-- both were very flavorful and rich. For the main course, my husband had the crawfish etouffee which was solid and fresh. He really liked it and said it was definitely as good as what they served at the well-loved, now defunct Hyde Park Dixie Kitchen, although it wasn't mind-blowing (I think he may have just had food-envy because what I got was better...). I ordered the Shrimp and Grits, which was by far the star of the show. They were DELICIOUS-- the grits were rich, cheesy, and not at all mushy. The shrimp were huge, fresh, and flavorful and they were smothered with a decadent apple-bacon sauce..... It just does not get better than that. We finished the meal with a plate of yummy bite-sized desserts-- including carrot cake, a peach cobbler brownie, and a New Orlean's-style beignet-- that they gave us on-the-house.

Overall, there are definitely some little glitches that will need to be worked out-- we waited too long for drinks, the waiter was pretty absent-minded, the decor still leaves something to be desired-- but I think Gavin knows how to make some delicious food, and that's what's most important. My biggest fear, though, is that the place won't be given the chance to come into its own. Many Hyde Parkers, especially the folks over at Hyde Park Progress, are pretty cynical about the Big Easy because of Orly's history and so they are essentially boycotting the restaurant. I'm not a fan of Shopiro's previous projects, either, and was disappointed to learn that he is still pretty heavily involved in the place. I think Gavin probably could make a better restaurant without him if not for his financial input, but I'm hopeful that she'll have the chance to prove her culinary chops and that her talent and youthfulness will give new life to the space. So, with all of this said, I urge you to check the place out, to approach it with an open mind, and to order the shrimp and grits.


  1. I ate at Orly’s a few times over the years and while the food was decent and the baked goods superb, the atmosphere was dreary and the service nothing to boast about.
    Since becoming The Big Easy, the place has improved by leaps and bounds. The décor is trendy, the waiting staff up to par and the food is scrumptious. I ate there 6 times (yes, really six times) since they opened, including the first tasting week and one brunch. I have tried a lot of the dishes and all of the desserts and each dish is better than the next. When my wife wanted to order something that was a variation of one on the dishes, due to a food allergy, they were very accommodating and made her a special meal, even though it was pretty packed at the time. We also tried the special beers and were truly delighted. Kudos to Shopiro for finally striking gold!

  2. Chef Gavin has quit after a run-in with Mr. Shopiro. She seemed to be the talent in this operation and without her there is no real reason to go here.

  3. We just had dinner there this week to celebrate the Mardi Gras and the food was good enough to be on the menu of any New Orleans establishment. At long last there is a good restaurant in the neighborhood.

  4. Anybody remember a restaurant called "Gordons" back in the Fifties? Think it was on 57th street, or 55th street...I find the T-Hut on Google, but not that one...M Robins

  5. Thanks Anonymous for letting folks know that the Big Easy's original chef has left. I tweeted about it a while back, but it completely slipped my mind to post it here!

    I ate there right after she quit and, I'm sorry to say, the food was not as good. Has anyone been there lately? If so, I'd love to post your review-- please send it my way! (Contact me at

  6. Sorry, don't remember Gordon's-- I wasn't around yet... Will ask around though and report back if I hear anything :-)

  7. Gordon's was a place one could go for a meal that could start with a decent portion of creamed herring, soup, salad, a large serving of ground round, potato & vegetables and dessert and get a bill for $1.75.
    Am planning a visit back to Hyde Park and disappointed to learn it's gone.
    The Medici opened around 1958 and expresso and tables on the sidewalk were quite exotic then.