HYDE PARK — A Matthias Merges restaurant scheduled to open this year remains mired in legal troubles over selling alcohol and likely won't open until 2014.
Yusho, Merges’ second location for his Logan Square Japanese restaurant, was expected to open this year but was stalled in August when residents sued to stop the restaurant from selling alcohol.
On Friday, a Cook County Circuit judge agreed to move the case forward to oral arguments, likely extending the case into 2014.
"We cannot determine an exact timetable, but we are committed to moving forward quickly with this restaurant when those issues are resolved," said Calmetta Coleman, a spokesman for the University of Chicago, which is Yusho's landlord and is defending against the neighbors' suit.
Yusho was expected to open this year to coincide with the opening of Merges’ A10, which opened at 1462 E. 53rd St. last week.
Merges, Charlie Trotter’s former chef de cuisine, said in an interview Nov. 4 that he remains committed to bringing Yusho to Hyde Park, but declined to comment on the lawsuit.
People who worked closely with Merges on both Hyde Park restaurants said Merges will likely stay out of the dispute because he views it as a disagreement between neighbors and his landlord, the University of Chicago, and not a reflection of opinions about Yusho.
“Should the university be allowed to make a change on a residential block to allow any kind of alcohol they want? No,” said Robin Kaufman, who lives in the 5300 block of South Kimbark Avenue and who is one of the residents fighting against allowing alcohol.
The University of Chicago owns the 1301 E. 53rd St. location where the Japanese street food restaurant is planned and heavily courted Merges to open both Yusho and A10 in Hyde Park.
“The people around them don’t want it [alcohol], and the university is going to great expense to try to get it here,” Kaufman said.
In September, the university hired legal heavyweight Mike Kasper to defend against the residents’ challenge. Kasper is best known for successfully defending efforts to block Mayor Rahm Emanuel from getting on the 2011 mayoral ballot, a process similar to the liquor dispute.
About 49 people, two-thirds of registered voters in the dry district, must sign a petition before the ban on alcohol is lifted. A reported 52 people signed the petition being challenged. An earlier petition was signed by 60 residents, but was thrown out by the City Clerk's Office because of a typo. Four people reportedly have withdrawn their support since signing the second petition.
"Members of the community have told us they want to see more excellent restaurants as part of 53rd Street redevelopment," Coleman said. "We really have the majority of people in that precinct in favor and they have signed the petition."
Kauffman and other residents said the suit is also about the university’s failure to engage the community before taking sweeping action on 53rd Street.
"They are transforming 53rd Street radically without pausing to assess the consequences of one project before starting the next one," said Tom Panelas, who filed the suit. "This is about what kind of neighborhood we are going to be, and that’s a subject for full and frank debate, not something that should be decided just because it’s expedient for one landlord."
Neighbors are also suing the university to stop a planned 13-story residential and retail complex at 1330 E. 53rd St.
Abraham Matthew, who is representing the neighbors, said it is extremely rare for a small liquor dispute to get this intense.
“For an attorney, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing,” Matthew said, adding that he thought he was unlikely to ever see another case like this during his lifetime.
Matthew said he believed it is rare because the legal fees are so high and the issue can be easily and cheaply resolved by circulating another petition.