NORTH CENTER — You've heard of dinner for two, but how about dinner by two?
Browntrout and Bottles and Cans — neighboring businesses on Lincoln Avenue — are planning a progressive dinner for Dec. 5. Bottles and Cans will host the cocktail-and-appetizer portion of the evening, with diners then walking five feet north to Browntrout for the remainder of the meal.
The two operations became fast friends when Carly and Joe Katz, both 30, started setting up their craft beer, wine and spirits emporium next to Sean Sanders' farm-to-table restaurant.
"My husband and I were in here painting, and we saw these two little heads poking in the window. It was Doug [Robinson, Browntrout's manager] and Sean," Carly Katz said.
The veterans immediately set about mentoring the newcomers, having already experienced the frustrations and delays that come with joining the small-business world.
"They've been tremendously helpful," Katz said. "They've talked us off a couple of cliffs — they could empathize with everything we were feeling and going through."
The admiration runs both ways.
In combining forces, Bottles and Cans connects its name to Browntrout's established reputation, while creating a unique event for the restaurant's diners. Stephanie Heyse of Connoisseur Wines, which supplies both establishments, is helping coordinate beverages for the progressive dinner — wine pairings for Browntrout's courses and sparkling cocktails for Bottles and Cans that make use of elixirs crafted by Sanders' team.
"We want people to have an experience," Katz said. "If I wasn't working 90 hours a week, I would totally [come to] this."
As it happens, Sanders and the Katzes aren't just North Center proprietors, they're North Center residents, which is reflected in the way they run their operations.
For his part, Sanders, who appreciates the area's family-friendly vibe, offers free meals to kids. He also strives to make his food accessible, not intimidating, to neighbors.
"I'm trying to bridge fine dining, comfortable and farm-to-plate," he said. "I'm trying to do flavor combinations people can understand," pointing out that his entree for the progressive dinner features shrimp, not sea cucumbers.
Katz aims to make personal attention the hallmark of Bottles and Cans.
"Both my husband and I are friendly, fun people," she said.
Though the shop just opened in October, she's already on a first-name basis with customers like Shelly Weiss, 26, a regular visitor with her home-brewing boyfriend.
"We live right by the square," said Weiss. "We come every week."
On a recent afternoon, Weiss popped in to ask about a limited-release Goose Island beer. Katz already had sold out of the item but was able to recommend a number of alternatives.
It helps that Katz, originally from South Dakota, and her husband, a native Chicagoan, have tasted nearly every item on the shelves in order to talk about them knowledgeably with customers.
"It was a lot of research," she said. "That was one of the funnest things we've done."
The couple, married for a year and a half, have been together four years, and started talking about opening up their own business almost from day one.
"I think on our first date we decided we wanted to do something," Katz said.
A "boutique bottle shop" (Katz is not a fan of the term "liquor store") was a logical choice for the pair.
"We like to go to breweries and wineries," she said, acknowledging the interest is not an uncommon one. "We just took it to that next weird level."
The two are banking on alcohol's reputation as a "recession-proof" business, and also on the craft beer and distillery movement, which shows no sign of abating.
Shane Norris, a customer who lives three blocks away and confessed to eight visits in five weeks, appreciates that the selection at Bottles and Cans is more adventurous than the nearby Jewel and more curated, and close at hand, than big-box stores.
"It's nice not having to make the trip to Binny's," he said. "It's really awesome to just walk and get beer."
To reserve a space at the progressive dinner, scheduled for Dec. 5, 6:30 p.m., call (773) 472-4111. Cost is $75 per person.