HUMBOLDT PARK — An American bistro geared toward teachers is taking over the former Cuban eatery La Havana Cafe, which shuttered a few weeks ago after about 1½ years of business.
Raul Ramos, a chef who has 20 years of experience running the kitchen everywhere from Spiaggia Restaurant and The Cubby Bear to Sox Park, is behind The Chicago Teachers Lounge and Eatery, 2525 W. Division St., which could open as soon as next month.
Ramos came up with the idea for a teacher-themed eatery after realizing that there aren't many local restaurants that can accommodate large groups of teachers for social gatherings and school-related functions or, at the very least, have teachers in mind.
Though Ramos and his family have lived in Irving Park for 15 years, his 15-year-old son, Diego, attends the Chicago High School for the Arts, 2714 W. Augusta Blvd., which is in Humboldt Park. As a parent, Ramos said he's encountered the problem in the neighborhood on several occasions.
"Whenever we go there for a performance, a lot of the parents and kids are looking for dinner [afterward] and there [are] never enough chairs" at existing restaurants, Ramos said.
He was also inspired by a development called "Teachers Village" that is proposed for the former Von Humboldt Elementary, 2620 W. Hirsch St. Under the plan, the school would become a mixed-use community with housing marketed toward teachers. It has not yet received all of the necessary approval.
"I am three blocks away from that. That's another piece of this," Ramos said. "The ward is surrounded by 17 schools. I think there's going to be enough support for this."
With the Chicago Teachers Lounge and Eatery, Ramos wants to put teachers first. He's planning to routinely open up the restaurant, which seats 65 people, for school fundraisers and events and create a gathering place for teachers. Once the restaurant is up and running, Ramos also wants to open an outdoor patio with room for 28 seats.
Decor-wise, patrons can expect a wall full of local student art, a mini library with reference books, mail slots similar to those you'd find in a teachers lounge, old typewriters and two blackboards — one for daily specials and the other for teachers to inform the community about upcoming events. Ramos said he won't be making any major changes to the interior since the owner of La Havana Cafe gutted and remodeled the restaurant so recently.
Ramos drew inspiration from his many restaurant industry gigs to create the menu, which he described as "American bistro with Latin flair." A double-decker grilled cheese made with cheese from Wisconsin farms and Puerto Rican cheese, a Piedmontese burger on a brioche bun and a trio of Empanadas are among the offerings. The average check will cost $30.
Originally from Mexico City, Ramos moved to Chicago at age 21 to work at his friend's restaurant and never left. He went on to work for La Bella Italia in suburban Winnetka before landing at Spiaggia Restaurant, where he learned to cook under chef Tony Montuano.
The latter half of his career was mostly spent around baseball fans. Ramos was the executive chef for The Cubby Bear for about five years and then briefly worked at what's now called Guaranteed Rate Field as executive sous chef. After the last gig, which only lasted one season, Ramos took an eight-year hiatus from the restaurant industry to spend more time with his family.
It wasn't until about two years that Ramos started seriously considering getting back into the industry and opening his own restaurant. After deals in suburban Palatine and Mount Prospect fell through, he discovered the building at 2525 W. Division St., conveniently located near Diego's school.
"Food is my passion. Even though I wasn't cooking for people [during the eight-year period], I never stopped cooking from home," Ramos said. "I'm ready to put it back to work. I have what it takes to provide good food. I have the knowledge."
Ramos is currently working on getting the necessary approval to start redecorating. A soft opening date will be released in the coming weeks.