Urban Smoke Café catering company wants to open a brick-and-mortar restaurant at 6134-38 W. North Ave. in Galewood. But the plan isn’t without controversy because the restaurant plans to serve drinks in an area that was voted dry. The owner also has a history of accumulating complaints by neighbors.
In 1998, voters passed a referendum that made the block and all but the handful of blocks between North Avenue, Narragansett Avenue, Courtland Street and Austin Boulevard dry, blocking the city’s ability to issue licenses to serve and consume liquor. There is also a separate moratorium on issuing new liquor licenses on that block but under the Chicago Municipal Code, this type of moratorium doesn’t apply to restaurants.
Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th), whose ward includes all of the dry precincts, said that the liquor license Urban Smoke is looking to get, a Consumption on Premises-Incidental Activity License, is allowed in a dry precinct. The license allows businesses where “sale of alcoholic liquor is incidental or secondary to the primary activity” to serve liquor, according to the city’s website.
In order to get the Incidental Activity License, Urban Smoke Café has to apply for a zoning change that would allow it to operate as a restaurant. The Chicago City Council’s Committee on Zoning, Landmarks and Building Standards was originally scheduled to consider it on Oct. 26, but Taliaferro said that he requested a one-month delay.
The alderman said that he wants to use the time to work with Urban Smoke owner Omar Bryant to develop a legally binding plan of operations agreement. While Taliaferro didn’t elaborate on what the agreement would entail, the owner’s last attempts to open a restaurant received pushback due to concerns that he allegedly operated an illegal nightclub out of his home.
According to the Urban Grill Café website, Bryant is a West Side native who got interested in grilling while serving in the U.S. Navy.
In 2016, Bryant tried to open a restaurant and event space in the same first-floor location but he received pushback amid allegations that he operated an illegal nightclub called Urban Myth out of the basement of 1610 N. Moody Ave, a mixed-use commercial/residential building where he lives. The building is owned by his mother, Geraldine Bryant.
At the time, Omar insisted that Urban Myth is merely a group of friends who meet together to share their love of disco music. He also maintained the gatherings aren’t open to the public and he doesn’t sell alcohol. But in 2014, the venue was issued a cease-and-desist order by the Chicago Department of Business Affairs for allegedly serving alcohol and illegally operating as a nightclub.
Neighbors were also concerned about the fact that Touched by an Angel Daycare had to move out of the space at the North Avenue building because hazardous levels of mold were found in the basement.
Bryant currently runs a catering business that serves grilled and smoked meats and fish. He previously said that he was interested in opening a restaurant because the section of North Avenue between Austin and Narragansett didn’t have any sit-down dining spaces.
“We have no restaurants, no cafes, no sit down and eat place,” he said at the time. “With the storefront we have, I’m proposing that we use this space for a café where you can sit down, eat, watch a game, and maybe do some homework.”
Earlier this year, Bryant got $250,000 in Chicago Community Development Grant funding to build out a physical location.
Judith Alexander, chair of The North Avenue District community development organization, said the dry referendum was prompted by “a couple of night clubs” between Austin Boulevard and Narragansett Avenue that “were really a problem for the neighborhood.”
Thomas Simmons, Taliaferro’s former administrative assistant and who led the campaign to designate the precincts dry, said allowing any establishment to sell liquor undermines what the referendum backers worked long and hard for.
“I don’t think it’s fair to the neighbors, where they can get a liquor license,” he said. “We fought hard and spent a lot of money trying to dry that area up.”
Taliaferro emphasized that “we are not lifting any moratorium in place in my ward.”
Simmons also said that he was concerned about the impact the new restaurant will have on parking and he’s also leery because of the earlier mold issues.
Alexander said that her organization is staying neutral on the matter.
“We’re aware that a number of residents are upset by it,” she said. “On the one hand, we’d love to see more restaurants open in this area. On the other hand, we’re also aware that there could be a neighborhood disturbance, perhaps, so we’ll leave it [to the] residents.”