ROGERS PARK — The Heartland Cafe's majority owner, Tom Rosenfeld, hired a new executive chef and revamped the restaurant's "historic" menu hoping to bring in new business, said the Michigan farmer.
Rosenfeld, 48, said the menu and updated decor fit more closely with a Midwestern theme — and its "Heartland" namesake.
"This place hasn't changed for decades," said Rosenfeld, who took over the 36-year-old restaurant last year. "We're really trying to reach out to people who have never been here before."
Corn fritters, buttermilk fried chicken and a turkey, bacon and egg burger called "The Barnyard" have replaced Southwestern-style foods like burritos and plates of rice and beans.
"Nothing says Heartland more than corn, and then fried chicken," Rosenfeld said.
New executive chef Kim Gracen created the new menu.
"Everything on the menu has less than six ingredients in it, but it's still really flavorful and complex," said Gracen, the former chef at The Chicago Diner, a popular vegetarian spot with locations in Boystown and Logan Square.
She said she took a menu that was stuck in "default" and brought it up to date. Several dishes include a veggie mash — made with cauliflower, Yukon Gold potatoes and kale — topped with vegan gravy. The recipe, she said, came to her in "a dream."
Rosenfeld, a longtime Rogers Park resident who also operates Earth First Farms in Berrien County, Mich., sampled new wines with a sommelier Monday at the restaurant's Buffalo Bar, where the mounted buffalo head and "Buffalos Parking Only" sign remain from an earlier time.
He said he made a point to keep many of the Heartland favorites — like the buckwheat pancakes, the buffalo burger and the red and black bean and corn chili — on the menu.
Michael James, one of the original founders of the cafe at 7000 N. Glenwood Ave., which became just as much of a restaurant as a progressive politics hub over the years, said he felt good about most of the changes.
"We're looking forward to trying a lot of new things," he said, "and we're glad that some of the earlier Heartland stuff remains on the menu."
Of the additions, he's especially fond of the corn fritters.
"I get 'em with maple syrup, which reminds me of being a kid up in Vermont visiting my aunt," he said.
Many of the new entrees's ingredients come directly from Rosenfeld's farm. Even the new menus, printed on white paper, are attached to pieces of wood, painted barn-house red, that were salvaged from old apple crates once used to gather fruit in his orchard.
Although he said the change was needed, he wants to keep the Heartland as the "center for politics in the 49th Ward."
For example, he said, when a military attack on Syria seemed to be imminent earlier this year, they re-erected a "broken missile" — a prop James had acquired from a movie set years ago — atop the Heartland's roof and held a candlelight vigil in protest.
"A lot of places don't have a political compass, and we clearly do, and that compass hasn't shifted," Rosenfeld said.