Before you go to a restaurant, what do you want — or need — to know most? In our series The Rundown, we’re sharing all the essentials about newly opened (as well as some of your favorite) restaurants.
Ashlee Aubin is no stranger to a beloved neighborhood restaurant. Though the chef has worked at splashy spots (such as the now-closed Zealous in River North and the Michelin-starred Alinea), it was the smaller kitchens — at HB Home Bistro and Wood, both in Lakeview — that gave Aubin a real chance to flex his culinary chops. And to get to know the regulars, of course.
During his time at Wood, Aubin made two formative hires: Katie Wasielewski and Aaron Patten. Even after leaving Lakeview, the trio worked together for years, including at the West Loop Spanish restaurant Salero. Though the chefs eventually parted ways, all three stayed in touch and talked about opening something together someday. Something neighborhood-y and personal, where they, too, could get to know their regulars.
So when the small Bucktown corner space that once housed Izakaya Mita became available, the three saw an opportunity to finally make it happen. The result is Pompette, a charming all-day café and wine bar that opened last fall, and has quickly become a neighborhood go-to with a tight family feel. Aubin shifted his focus to manage the front of the house and oversee the wine program, while Wasielewski and Patten together lead the culinary operations, resulting in an Italian and French-inspired menu and a predominantly European wine program.
“When you’ve worked together for 10 years, you barely have to say anything,” says Aubin. “I think that comes through in the vibe — and it’s with the whole staff. We pulled in people we knew and loved.” We sat down with Aubin to discuss everything you need to know about Pompette before going — or going back.
You can — and should — stay a while.
As an all-day café and wine bar (with Wi-Fi so you can work, thank you very much), things get rolling a bit before noon Wednesday through Friday and at 10 a.m. on weekends. Come in for a coffee and housemade pastry, or settle in for a composed brunch. The wide-ranging menu includes everything from scrambled eggs to brioche French toast to quinoa salad to a Slagel Farm burger with caramelized onions and American cheese. “Every neighborhood should have a place you can go at 2:30 in the afternoon to get coffee, food, and wine,” Aubin says.
Happy hour (at the 12-seat bar only) runs between 3 and 6 p.m., and goes heavy on the snacks, like chips with sour cream and onion dip or a mini cheese and charcuterie board. Glasses of wine and cocktails run $10. A beer on tap? That’s $5. Dinner overlaps, starting at 4 p.m. with a more expansive menu where the chefs flex a bit.
For dinner, don’t miss the crab croquettes. Or the vegetables. Or a pasta. Or …
As one of the smaller plates, the crab croquettes mark a nice starting point for dinner. Served two to an order, the lump crab gets lightly breaded before being fried and served with a Spanish-leaning saffron aioli and piquillo pepper relish. From there, move on to the rotating cast of wood-grilled vegetables, which might include something like asparagus with Bearnaise sauce and anchovy bread crumbs, or vibrant orange heirloom carrots with pomegranate seeds and salsa verde atop tahini yogurt.
An ever-changing housemade pasta could take the shape of agnolotti or spaghetti with peas, wild mushrooms, and herbed ricotta. A hanger steak from CDK Ranch is a staple, served with potato gnocchi, trumpet mushrooms, asparagus, and a salsa verde. Pescatarian? No problem—try the roasted halibut with a rotating set like fava beans and fennel with citrus beurre blanc.
The name suggests you get a little tipsy.
When the partners started thinking about what to name their restaurant, their first idea was “Apero.” A casual way to say “aperitif” in French, it felt like a natural fit — until another forthcoming Chicago wine bar claimed it first. So the team reached out to some French friends in the business to brainstorm, and one threw out pompette, which means “a little bit tipsy.” The rest, they say, is histoire.
Natural wines and savory cocktails round things out.
The mostly European wine list features all natural or low-intervention wines. That doesn’t mean they’ll taste funky or off-putting. On the contrary, the wines get sourced from producers that farm with organic or biodynamic methods, yielding cleaner, classical flavors. You can find a pet-nat from northern Italy or a German riesling, a Spanish tempranillo rosé or one made from cab franc from the Loire Valley. There’s albariño, red Burgundy, Rhone blends — even a Napa cabernet. If you’re not sure what to order, just ask. One server was the wine director at Lula Café and another worked at Bucktown wine shop Red & White. “We want people to feel comfortable asking to try something new,” Aubin said. “You can get outside of your sauvignon blanc safe zone and we’ll find something you’ll love.”
The cocktail program, headed by Margaret Warren (Table, Donkey and Stick), offers savory-leaning cocktails that utilize byproducts from the kitchen to reduce food waste. For example: rhubarb that’s made into a jam and then strained into a syrup. Bread ends from seeded sourdough get toasted and marinated with liquor and strained for the Toast ‘n’ Jam cocktail with Campari, rum, sweet vermouth, and a strawberry-pineapple jam. Charred carrots that are infused into bourbon and vermouth to add a savory carrot essence. Cocktails have simple names — Sesame, Olive Oil, Parsnip, or Mushroom — hinting at what you may taste in the glass.
“[The cocktails] are focused on balance,” Abin says. “There’s a very savory element to them. Even the ones with a sweet ingredient are balanced through acid and other components. We’re using a lot of ingredients you wouldn’t normally see in drinks,” he adds. His hope, with beverages and across the board, is that “people will get something they haven’t had before” — and some things that will keep them coming back for more.
Ari Bendersky, a lifestyle journalist specializing in food, wine, spirits, and travel, is the author of Something Glorious with Ari Bendersky on Substack. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter. Follow Resy, too.