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Tortuga's Cantina Aims to Bring Retro Supper Club Vibe to Lawrence Avenue

By Patty Wetli | January 23, 2014 11:17am
 Tortuga's in Albany Park is bringing 1950s-style live entertainment.
Tortuga's Aims for Supper Club Vibe
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ALBANY PARK — Club Babalu may be a dated reference, but that's what the owners of Tortuga's Cantina say they envision for their Lawrence Avenue restaurant — a contemporary version of Ricky Ricardo's supper club on "I Love Lucy."

The owners presented their plan at Tuesday's meeting of Albany Park Neighbors, explaining their need for a public place of amusement license in order to provide live entertainment — be it a strolling mariachi band, folk dancing accompanied by a piano or a guitarist plucking romantic tunes on Valentine's Day.

Tortuga's, which opened in September at 3224 W. Lawrence Ave., had run afoul of the city and neighbors by offering live music without the license, a requirement of which owner Jairo Lopez said he was unaware.

"We didn't know we needed the PPA. We thought we needed it only if we were collecting money," he said.

Lopez and his business partner Wo Romanowski (Carlos Calle is a third member of the management team) are no strangers to Chicago's entertainment scene, having previously worked together at River North's now-shuttered Rumba, where Lopez served as bar manager and Romanowski was entertainment director.

Rumba, with its Latin-influenced cuisine and music, is one model for Tortuga's, according to Romanowski, himself a musician. Rogers Park's Mayne Stage, which brings in acts from Cuba and Ukraine, is another.

"The whole plan is to have a nice family restaurant where we can have flamenco dancing or a tango lesson," said Lopez. "It's not going to be crazy. We are not like a bar on the corner selling only beer."

Neighbors expressed concerns about security and noise on a stretch of Lawrence Avenue that residents say already has its share of trouble spots.

"The PPA warrants a closer look," said Shylo Bisnett of Albany Park Neighbors. "They're coming from a Downtown-style club and want to replicate it in a residential neighborhood."

Security has been hired for Friday and Saturday nights, Lopez said, and Tortuga's isn't asking for a late-night license.

A native of Guatemala who has lived in Albany Park for the last eight years, Lopez said the absence of similar businesses in the area was precisely what made the location so attractive.

"We want to present something different. There's nothing on Lawrence — only tacos," he said. "We want to bring upscale dining and entertainment."

Indeed, Tortuga's menu is heavily weighted with seafood dishes: platters of mussels; soup with clam, shrimp and langostino; and ceviche, which features raw seafood marinated in lemon or lime juice. The restaurant is also serving up its version of the jibarito sandwich, a Chicago specialty in which flattened and fried plantains substitute for bread.

Prices ranges from $8.95 for three fish tacos to $14.95 for an Argentinian steak entree.

Once Tortuga's submits its application for the PPA license, neighbors have 45 days to comment, according to Dana Fritz, chief of staff for Ald. Deb Mell (33rd).

"The dialog is good," Fritz said of Tuesday's community meeting.

Romanowski promised to keep communication channels with residents open.

"Absolutely, we want to set up an avenue to get to us, to get to each other," he said. "Now we have faces. ... We can build on the little threads we have now."