The prospect of operating an upscale fried chicken restaurant, likely serving dozens of diners a day, might seem daunting for the two chefs who have made a mark running Chicago’s semi-private and irregularly scheduled Sunday Dinner Club. But Christine Cikowski and Josh Kulp say they can’t wait to open Honey Butter Fried Chicken in the North Side neighborhood of Avondale, which they hope will happen by August.
And it appears the substantial fan base they’ve built over the past eight years can’t wait either. On a weekday in late May, Sunday Dinner Club sent out notice to its email list — which Kulp and Cikowski say now runs into the thousands — that there would be two seatings for a fried chicken dinner June 3 in a collaboration at Lula Cafe, a highly rated restaurant in the Logan Square neighborhood. The event was completely booked in less than two hours.
When this was brought to Kulp’s attention, he expressed some amazement at the degree to which the reputation of their fried chicken was preceding the opening of their restaurant, still at least a couple of months off. He noted that his own mother had also gotten shut out in her attempt to make a reservation.
Kulp and Cikowski met while studying culinary arts at Chicago’s Kendall College. Both were career-changers: Cikowski started out after college in arts management, while Kulp was a grade-school teacher. They became friends and then business partners (they are not married to each other, a conclusion to which Cikowski says many people jump).
They started Sunday Dinner Club in 2005 shortly after they graduated, even as Cikowski worked at Blackbird, the original restaurant in the empire that has been built by star Chicago chef Paul Kahan. And they quickly benefited from the attention that was then being paid by journalists — particularly Monica Eng of the Chicago Tribune — and the city’s “foodie” community to the phenomenon of “underground restaurants,” which provided fine dining experiences and restaurant-style service in non-traditional settings, including private homes.
But from the start, Cikowski and Kulp were not very comfortable with the underground label. The existence of Sunday Dinner Club was not a secret, well-kept or otherwise.
Not long after they launched, they accepted an invitation to set up a stand at Green City, Chicago’s biggest farmers market, which evolved into Sunday Dinner Burger and introduced a more general public to the fresh-ground hamburgers that had become a popular staple of their dinner club series. And while they have never published their email address or held open registrations for their meals, they have urged those who have dined with them to have their acquaintances request inclusion on their mailing list.
“We never wanted to be underground. We only did it because we didn’t know how to categorize ourselves,” Cikowski said.
Kulp added, “We wanted to build a community of people who are connected and get to eat these awesome meals together. There are a lot of people in Chicago who know us and talk about us and come to our dinners and are excited for Honey Butter.”
As for what will make their new place stand out in a city that has no shortage of fried chicken options, Kulp explained, “The chicken itself is delicious and it’s local. We brine it, it’s very juicy and awesome, and then we double-coat it in seasoned flour and buttermilk. The seasonings we use are very zesty, there’s a lot of black pepper. The chicken comes out of the fryer and gets another seasoning we use, smoky paprika. It’s spiced but not hot.”
And then there is the idea of encouraging diners to put honey butter on the fried chicken. Cikowski said this came about by accident a few years ago. The chefs and their staff were eating their fried chicken in the back during a Sunday Dinner Club meal, when one of them dipped a piece in the honey butter that was intended for corn cakes served as a side dish, and pronounced it delicious.
“We started dipping it in there, and it was revelatory, and I ran out to the dining room and people were like halfway done and I said, ‘Put the butter on the chicken, put it on!’ It was the honey and the butter and the salt. It just makes the spices on the chicken pop,” Cikowski said.
Cikowski and Kulp chose their location for Honey Butter — at the corner of Elston and Roscoe in Avondale, a working-class neighborhood — in part because the building, formerly occupied by a Mexican restaurant, had an upstairs space that they converted into a permanent site for Sunday Dinner Club, and also because it has a spacious back patio that will be used as an outdoor dining area.
Avondale, a former center of Polish-American life in Chicago that is now mainly Hispanic, is a little off the beaten path, in the north-center part of the city about six miles from downtown. Yet it has in recent years established itself as a growing center for gourmet versions of American fast food. The Honey Butter location is just down Roscoe from Hot Doug’s, a hugely popular sausage shop, open from 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. six days a week, that regularly has a line down the block. Not far away are Kuma’s Corner, a popular gourmet hamburger joint, and the tasting bar located in the production facility that Revolution, one of the city’s leading craft breweries, opened last summer.
Even with that growth, though, Avondale is a bit underserved when it comes to restaurant options, which Cikowski said gave it a crucial edge over parts of the city that are major dining destinations. “It’s in a community where people really want good food and they have been incredibly supportive. I’m not sure we would have gotten that in other neighborhoods,” she said.