“Wholesome food for the mind & body”
Editor’s Note: the historic café closed on New Year’s Eve 2018 after four decades in business. The owners hope to re-open in another location, so keep an eye on their Facebook page for updates and their greatest culinary hits.
Deep in the Heart of Rogers Park is the critically acclaimed commune-come-restaurant-and-bar where everyone from hippies to leftists to the LGBTQ+ to vegetarians are most welcome, along with the rest of us who have sold out and revel in the material world. Though you may need to wait for your order to arrive, it will just make you enjoy the intriguing selection of hippie chow more, which ranges from brunch to buffalo burgers to a number of vegetarian dishes. Add to that a surprisingly good selection of microbrews, a killer patio and a store where you can get your kicks in the photo booth and buy a Che Guevara t-shirt or Communist Manifesto on your way out, and you’ve got a true Chicago classic.
The Heartland Café is actually a combination of the eponymous restaurant, Buffalo Bar and General Store, all of which is illustrated in lavender paint upon the beige brick, single-story facade. The Heartland complex lies at the northwest corner of Glenwood and Lunt, immediately next to the Red Line El, separated only by a street paved in original brick. The tiny Red Line Tap is under the same ownership and lies adjacent to Heartland to the north, purchased and renovated following Roy Kawaguchi’s passing in 1996. “Roy’s” as the place was known under Kawaguchi’s stewardship, dates back to the early 1900s and served as both the “7006 club” and the “Rogers Park Boating Club” at different times.
Patrons arrive through a wooden screen door, painted red. A photo booth can be found immediately on your left upon entry, as the “general store” opens up in front of you, selling a selection of Heartland Café and revolutionary t-shirts, books of Chicago and of the left, counter-culture periodicals like Skeleton News, Mexican food, toys, ice cream, and soap. Step through the space just to the right of the main entrance, in front of the cash register counter, and under flags with peace written in different languages, and you’ve just found the Buffalo Bar.
Like the Red Line Tap, the Buffalo bar is a narrow room with ceramic tile flooring and a battered wooden bar that runs the length of the western wall with high-backed chairs. A smattering of low-slung wooden tables and chairs sits along the eastern wall of exposed brick, adorned with all manner of artwork. The Buffalo Bar serve a baker’s dozen’s worth of microbrews on tap, including Rogue Dead Guy Ale, Half Acre Lager, Pyramid Apricot Ale, and New Holland Mad Hatter. More domestics and imports are available in bottles, about 50 in all. Sadly, Guinness drinkers will have to stomach Beamish, though the bar’s specialties include “Peach Fuzz” and “Red Velvet,” which are Beamish with peach lambic and Beamish with Framboise Lambic, respectively. Bloody Marys and margaritas are also popular and, for those of you teetotalers out there (I’m sorry), Heartland also serves Intelligentsia coffee, herbal house tea and a mean Chai Shake
The hostess stand is opposite the bar, in front of French doors that open into the main dining room, adorned with yellow painted walls and an ornate, black-painted tin ceiling. Though you can eat at the Buffalo Bar, most diners get a table in this more open space. From here, you can keep an eye on the kitchen as you ponder the impressive array of locally produced, rotating artwork on the walls. The dining room also features a carpeted elevated stage for occasional performances in the southeast corner, with plant-lined windows overlooking the corner and the El, and foam absorption suspended above the band that just happened to be adorned with St. Patty’s Day regalia even though it was July on my last visit. Said performances include the occasional musicians, ranging from jazz to folk to Latin to reggae (usually $6 cover), and theater groups ($10 cover), all of whom are featured after 10pm, from Wednesday through Saturday, so call ahead or check the Heartland Café website for upcoming shows. More theater is performed just to the north at the Heartland Studio Theater at 7016 N. Glenwood, and just to the south at the No Exit Cafe at 6970 N. Glenwood. The adjacent Red Line Tap also features live rock bands several nights a week and Live from the Heartland is hosted on the premises every Saturday morning from 9-10 a.m. and broadcast on Loyola University’s WLUW 88.7FM. Back in the Heartland dining room, a antique potbelly stove stands to the left of the door that leads out to both the screened-in patio, with its low-slung wooden tables and chairs, and outer patio set upon the leafy street of Lunt, which is much sought after in Summer.
As for the food, Heartland Café likes to avoid serving beef, due to cruelty subjected to cattle, and instead feature burgers made from buffalo treated more humanely. The buffalo burgers are indeed very popular, as are the catfish tacos, burritos and quesadillas (served with your choice of tofu, seitan, free range chicken, or buffalo), and the vegetarian dishes. I once had the buffalo ribeye steak (on special that day) and it was excellent – leaner than beef ribeye (a little to fatty for me) but not as dry as buffalo often can be. Though Beamish is the only Irish stout on draft, the Guinness chocolate cake was also superb. Just about everything is served with a brick of homemade cornbread, and you can get such down-home specialties as corn on the cob, sweet potato fries, and home baked deserts. At the time of writing, burgers go for $11, entrées $14-15, and vegetarian dishes $6.50. Brunch is also a neighborhood favorite, particularly with the omelettes, buckwheat pancakes served with real maple syrup, breakfast burritos, and egg dishes cooked in a skillet – there are often long waits on weekends, so get there early. The service is often described as slow and spotty, but I’ve had no issues, as they seem to cover many tables and it’s kind of like being at a pub in the UK: they’ll serve you at their own pace. I think the smoking ban helps keep things moving. If you expect a more manic, Olive Garden-type service of having your iced tea refilled every two minutes, be sure to head to the Olive Garden instead.
“Each overpriced bland meal is served to you by somnabulatory wait-staff with a helping heap of apathy… The HC is an over-romanticized dive patronized by cerebral regulars who really ought to know better.”
– Ian on Centerstage Chicago (June 11, 2003)
“The omelette I’d had there before wasn’t too bad (albeit a bit pricey, but I figure the extra pennies must surely go to help “The Cause”).”– mc quake j. on Yelp (May 26, 2008)
Though often described as having a “Tex-Mex” feel, I’ve heard music of a more Cajun variety, with an atmosphere that felt somewhat like a cross between New Orleans and San Francisco. The crowd may be a bit granola, but they certainly have money to afford regular visits to the Heartland. As they proclaim, the Heartland is, “Where the man-woman-child conscious of their body would come for periodic nourishment…getting into that basic, whole, good tasting food…prepared with care…and a place those not-yet-so-tuned-in to their bodies could enjoy and feel comfortable while checking it all out…”
Originally known as the, “Sweet Home Chicago Heartland Café,” this Rogers Park institution opened in 1976, “short, on both money and experience,” by Michael James and Katie Hogan, in what used to be a steakhouse. According to AOL CityGuide, the Heartland Café is the realization of Michael James’ dream of building a, “mini-economy of interconnected cottage industries.”
“James, former member of the SDS [Students for a Democratic Society] and longtime activist, is one of the longhairs in the famous photo of protesters pushing over a paddy wagon during the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, and Hogan later worked as Harold Washington’s north side campaign coordinator… He and co-owner Katy Hogan bought out a neighborhood steakhouse and, with their last $200, bought enough food at the Greater Illinois People’s Coop to open on Aug. 11, 1976, serving 43 patrons. The restaurant became a political forum, as it continues to be. Harold Washington, Paul Simon, Jesse Jackson Jr., and Barack Obama gave early political speeches there, and the political roster also included activists such as Abbie Hoffman.”– excerpt from Heartland Café by Cara Jepsen (February 2007)
Today at the Heartland, everyone in the neighborhood knows the place for its ever-popular summer patio (once again serving beer after a licensing SNAFU in 2007), the brunch, buffalo burgers and vegetarian dishes, its diversity and LGBTQ+ friendly atmosphere, and for being the leftist epicenter of the entire Midwest. As such, the place is beloved by many, tried to be loved (but not quite) by some, and roughly criticized by even more. Heartland is located pretty far north but is just a block north of the Red Line Morse stop, and parking isn’t too bad. Cabs are not plentiful, though you may have more luck if you walk a few blocks east to Broadway, but this area is a bit sketchy at night. If you like Heartland, you might also like The Glenwood, located a block south. For more information, check out the Heartland Café website. Like, make love not war, man.