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Big Star in Wicker Park Plans Expansion, City Says

By Alisa Hauser | March 30, 2013 4:47pm

WICKER PARK —  Big Star is getting bigger.

Sources confirmed Saturday that the popular taqueria and bar at 1531 N. Damen Ave. in Wicker Park plans to expand outdoor patio seating to a parking lot adjacent to its property and lease space inside the 1,500-square-foot storefront next door.

 Ald. Joe Moreno (1st) said he met with the owner of the building that's currently home to the Caravette Real Estate company at 1537 N. Damen Ave. who "expressed Big Star's interest in growing" to him.

Moreno said he had not seen specific floor plans for the expansion and is only aware of the fact Big Star's take-out window will move to the adjacent building and the restaurant will add patio seating to the parking lot separating the two buildings.

"It's exciting to me that in a time when we have pressures from national chains wanting to move in, that an independently-owned business can thrive and grow," Moreno said.

Big Star's neighbors became aware of the proposed expansion through a public notice from the city's Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection, which was mailed Wednesday.

The postcard informs residents of a March 19 application for an "Expanding restaurant with liquor" license filed by "Pontiac Produce Comp." Pontiac Produce is Big Star's parent company.

Peter Garfield, managing partner of Big Star, said Tuesday the restaurant is in "the process of potentially expanding."

"'It's really in initial stages, we submitted [our plan] to the city and are going through next steps with them," Garfield said.

Garfield cited overcrowding as well as a too-small kitchen as the impetus for the expansion.

"More than anything we want to accommodate guests. If you live in the neighborhood, especially during the summer, you know we have a lot of people waiting a long time, sometimes upward of two hours," he said. 

In addition to "trying to accommodate more seasonal outside seats," Garfield said the proposed expansion involves creating a commissary kitchen at 1537 N. Damen Ave. because Big Star's current kitchen is too small and the restaurant can't keep up with catering and off-premise events such as music festivals.

In terms of a timeline, Garfield said, "Nobody can answer that question ...  We will move as fast as we can, though we go through all the proper channels to do things right first so we don't have to rethink them later."

City code requires notice of such planned expansions to legal voters living within 250 feet of an applicant and provides a 40-day window from the date of application in which to submit "specific written complaints or comments" in writing to the Liquor Control Commission at 121 N. LaSalle St.

Big Star opened Nov. 9, 2009, in a space that formerly housed the Pontiac Cafe, and unveiled its outdoor patio seating, which seats 123, the following spring.

On Friday Big Star posted a photo of its outdoor patio on Instagram to indicate that it's open.

Early Saturday, about 15 minutes before Big Star prepared to open at 11:30 a.m., a line of more than 20 people were already waiting to get their taco fix.

Standing at the front of the line was Douglas Ritz, 48, a consultant from Streeterville, who said he and his friends "were first in line so we don't have to wait in line to eat here."

Ritz said he doesn't think the proposed expansion will alleviate the problem of long lines and likened it to being "like adding lanes to a highway.

"It will just make people want to drive it more."