Last month, a banner unfurled in the windows of a beloved storefront on 57th Street, bearing an announcement that would be a disappointment to some and a relief to others: after a year under new, and failing, management, Zaleski & Horvath MarketCafe was shuttering for good.
Z&H opened on 47th Street in 2008, and then on 57th Street in 2010; it operated out of both spaces for five years before shifting operations entirely to 57th in 2015. During its tenure in Kenwood and Hyde Park, Z&H set the bar for cafés.
In its heyday the café boasted a two-page list of creative paninis, each served up hot on a bed of potato chips; rotating blends of Metropolis coffee; iconic t-shirts; a back cooler with meats, eggs, and vegetables to meet your last-minute grocery needs; an alley-facing, sun-soaked back patio; and an incomparable cross breeze between the patio and the café’s often-open front garage door.
Z&H was what you needed it to be, all the time. There was a seat at the long community table for hunched-over email-senders (if you were smart enough to secure one before the lunch rush) and a bar stool for those seeking over-the-counter banter with the rotation of impossibly cool baristas. On Friday nights you could ring in the weekend over tacos, music, and (byo) beers, and on Saturday mornings you could ease yourself out of the hangover and back into the world. Always, it was a good place to stock up on jam, honey, and crackers for home, and—at least on the day before Thanksgiving—to get a last-minute turkey.
Perhaps the ease with which the café, simply put, did it all could be attributed to the fact that one of the two co-owners, Tim Schau, had been in the business of running Hyde Park cafés for five years before he founded Z&H with Sam Darrigrand in 2008. (Schau, who left Z&H in 2012, had previously run Istria Café since 2003 before pairing up with Darrigrand.)
But perhaps, I am inclined to think, there was something special about the way the café grew for and around the people who spent their time there.
A customer with a standing order might one day find their name on the chalkboard menu. And baristas weren’t above honoring regular customers with a tongue-in-cheek homage. Take the menu’s most intimidating offering, for instance, the Don’t Tell Tal—a three-pork-meat, two-cheese, giardiniera smothered sandwich grilled on half a baguette—which a former employee named after KAM Isaiah Israel rabbi and Z&H frequenter Tal Rosen. (And they didn’t tell Tal, at least not at first.)
And then, as those in the Chicago music world will tell you, Z&H had an interest in fostering talent. While they were still getting their feet under them, you could find Vic Mensa, Via Rosa, and Jean Deaux, in turn, heading up the kitchen. Chances are a number of their early tracks had a preview run over the sound system at Z&H before they ever dropped online.
In my four years as a regular, I drank too much coffee, made some friends, ate my way through the entire menu, hunched over my laptop for countless hours, danced, and cried—well, just once, when the chef did a day’s worth of onion-cutting at once. Z&H was a business, and like the rest of them it had owners, employees and customers, profits and expenses, but those distinctions never seemed to carry much weight. It was a home.
Until November 2016, that is, when Darrigrand quickly and quietly sold the café to new management, and that special something Z&H had dissipated overnight. A rift grew between employees and the new owners, and while the menu stayed mostly the same, quality decreased. More discerning customers noticed that the Jamon Jamon sandwich’s serrano ham had been replaced with a ham of lesser quality, the stone-ground mustard with regular mustard. The stripped-down sandwiches were served cold, and without the accustomed flourish. The mood plummeted. Longtime employees, and most regular customers, left.
I kept away from Z&H during this period, save for a single visit in 2017, when I was served lukewarm coffee (not Metropolis) and the wrong sandwich (I ordered the Kristen, Z&H’s classic chicken salad sandwich, and was brought a tuna salad sandwich instead.) I was devastated by this snafu, and have not returned since.
So now it’s closed, and yet Z&H will live on. The Chicago Maroon reports that TrueNorth Café, the Andersonville-based chain that is now operating out of Z&H’s old space, will keep the “more classic” sandwiches from the Z&H menu. But the owners will rename the Z&H creations to give them a more “TrueNorth” flavor. (Psst: the Lil’ Smokey and O’Malley is listed on the new menu as the “Gift of the Armando Maggi.” From there, I’m afraid, you’re on your own.)
Against my better instincts, I find comfort in the thought that on a sunny afternoon I could stop by TrueNorth to order a Marty, or failing that, a Lil’ Smokey and O’Malley, to go. I probably never will, though. Too many associations, too great a sense of loss, too much doubt that a resurrected Z&H sandwich will approach the real thing.
Soon the Z&H letters will be pulled off the brick, and TrueNorth will replace their banner with a more permanent sign. In a year, maybe, students and neighbors will stop accidentally calling TrueNorth Z&H. Eventually Hyde Parkers will forget that the Gift of the Armando Maggi was ever the Lil’ Smokey and O’Malley, and that Z&H was ever there to begin with.
There’s an old, old saying that there are two deaths; the second one comes when those who cared most for the departed stop saying their name. So here’s our promise to you, Zaleski & Horvath MarketCafé: we’ll keep saying your name as long as we can.
Emeline Posner is the Weekly’s food & land editor and a freelance writer