In the nine years since husband-and-wife duo Rick and Ashley Ortiz opened their cheery counter-service taqueria, Antique Taco, in Wicker Park, it’s become the kind of place you come back to over and over on a whim. Not just for the creative tacos packed with farmers’ market bounty, or those dangerously good rosemary-infused margaritas, but for the photogenically lived-in vibe, with painted wood, gauzy curtains and shelves brimming with vintage-inspired finds curated by the Ortizes. (More often than not, you leave with flushed cheeks and an impulse-buy trinket or two in your pocket.)
In 2016 the couple added a pint-sized second outpost in Rick’s native Bridgeport, flanked by a 10,000-square-foot patio that the neighborhood embraced almost instantly. For years, they tried to extend Bridgeport’s outdoor season, via heaters, themed events and an unsuccessful flirtation with tenting it — long before COVID-19 prompted desperate operators to winterize restaurant patios en masse.
Then the antiques-loving couple floated another idea: Convert the sprawling space into a drive-in complete with car hops and attachable window trays. But it seemed too far-fetched … that is, until 2020.
“We thought to ourselves, how can we work creatively with this space so we don’t end up down $20,000? We have this big lot that looks like a car hop drive-in from back in the day, and we can’t let anyone dine in anyway,” Ashley says. “What the pandemic has allowed is for you to try crazy concepts, and people are more forgiving.”
After squeezing every blessed drop from 2020’s long, hot and dry patio season, they set their plan in motion in September: creating retro signage, taking down the patio and drawing nine drive-in spaces, while still allowing room for curbside pickup. They scoured the internet for window trays and paper hats for staff, and retrained employees used to counter service on what would be full-service ordering — but carside. Rick dreamt up nostalgic menu items like floats, cheeseburger and hot-dog tacos, fries, and a kids’ menu (with a toy); while Ashley, the restaurant’s creative director, designed a vintage logo go with help from graphic designer Ryan Duggan, marketing materials, buttons and stickers. All told, they invested about $5,000 in the drive-in, which they debuted in October.
“It was almost like reopening jitters,” Ashley recalls, “like, oh we’re kind of opening a whole new restaurant right now.”
As she also oversees all of Antique’s socials, she wanted to ensure that the nostalgia they’d teased through vintage-y Instagram snaps of the drive-in marquee, and people leaning out their car windows with shakes, carried over to the experience when diners arrived — even as cold temps somewhat hindered the fantasy. (Liability likewise threw cold water on some fanciful early chats about staff donning roller skates.)
“We offered the window trays to people even if they didn’t want to eat on them since it was cold, to make sure they’re given those elements to make the experience old-school and fun,” she says. “Part of our mission is to make sure the concept always translates to the customer when they get here — whether they walk in and feel a little nostalgia with the way it’s decorated or get that through how our food is packaged for takeout.”
Drive-in traffic has fluctuated: Some days are busy, but on Sundays everyone seems keen to grab their food and hurry home, which prompted the Ortizes to trim the already-limited drive-in hours to Tuesday through Saturday. But the venture has helped enough to keep staff busy, and keep the Bridgeport location open and “goin on the right path,” Ashley says.
They’ve overcome other growing pains — service hiccups and tweaking the layout of the expansive space to make more space for pickup orders and parking — but their creativity won them the notice of daily talk show, “The Kelly Clarkson Show,” which featured Antique Taco as part of a recent weeklong focus on innovative restaurant pivots. The notice came with a $5,000 check, and a subsequent boost in traffic.
“Even if the drive-in wasn’t the most successful thing, it brought some light to the neighborhood and some attention to the business in general,” Ashley says. “We’re not new anymore; continuing to stay relevant is something that a lot of restaurants struggle with. It’s really fun to have opportunities to pop up in a creative way that’s new and exciting, but still consistent with who we are.”
Alas, the drive-in is set to wind down when the lucrative patio season (finally) returns, although some customers have remarked how fun it would be to carry it over into summer. But some elements will maintain. One definite holdover? The fast-favorite cheeseburger tacos.
“One hundred percent, we’d do the drive-in again,” Ashley says. “Plus, it’s always going to be fall and winter again in Chicago.”
Maggie Hennessy is a Chicago-based restaurant critic and food writer, whose work has appeared in such publications as Eater, Plate, Food52, Wine Enthusiast and others. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter. Follow Resy, too.