In 2021, chef Stephen Sandoval was hustling, running a fine dining pop-up out of a North Side event space, introducing much of Chicago to Baja Med cuisine, the type of food that the San Diego native grew up eating while making trips to Tijuana. The success of Entre Sueños led to a residency at Soho House in West Loop where Sandoval showed more of a casual side with burritos and other street food fare.
That laid the foundation for Sandoval’s new project. By the end of summer — hopefully by late July — the chef will open Diego, a new bar inside the former G&O Tavern, 459 N. Ogden Avenue. The bar will complement his upcoming fine dining, Sueños, located nearby at 1235 W. Grand Avenue and scheduled to open later in the fall. Not to be confused with the Latin music festival of the same name, but when Sueños was ending its extended run at Soho, Sandoval’s plan was always to open separate fine dining and casual restaurants, but it wasn’t a given that they would be under the same roof. But then the G&O closed in September after eight years.
“I’ve always loved the G&O space,” says Sandoval who adds that the bar’s landlords were reviewing multiple letters of interest before his team entered the picture.
Mariscos will favor heavy in Diego’s menu with ceviche, a tuna tostado, fish tacos, and more. Mexican seafood options are more frequent in Chicago. One Off Hospitality has even opened a spinoff of its popular Big Star brand devoted to mariscos, located just three minutes northwest. Sandoval is quick to point out that Chicago isn’t new to mariscos; there are plenty of restaurants that serve the specialty. But he’s determined that there’s plenty of room for competition. In other words, there’s plenty of room under the sea. Rimshot, please.
Non-seafood options include a burger with queso, macho aioli, pickled jalapeños, chives, and avocado. Sandoval is also keen on a Sonoran hot dog. His stepmother, Gloria, also inspired a taco de canasta with potato, salsa cruda, avocado, and crema.
There was a time that fine dining chefs would scoff at casual restaurants saying things like they didn’t want to be known for their burgers. That elitism remains, but it’s softened during the pandemic as casual dining helped many restaurants survive. Even Curtis Duffy of Michelin-starred Ever opened a burger shop. The success of casual concepts often allows chefs to pursue a fine dining component. Examples include the Coachhouse by Wazwan, the Smyth and Loyalist, and the Izakaya at Momotoro.
“We love them all equally,” Sandoval says. “They take up different spots in our hearts.”
Local bartender Danielle Lewis, who also worked on the drinks during Sueños time at Soho, is again working with Sandoval. She’s making mostly agave cocktails and along with frozen drinks. New offerings including the Morado Flor (hibiscus-infused mezcal, chipotle-pilloncillo syrup, lime juice), Un Perro (strawberry-infused vodka, miso simple syrup, lime juice, grapefruit juice), and Oscar’s Piña Colada (blended rum, coconut cream, lime and pinepple juice).
Having control of the music, lighting, and decor is a huge advantage, something that Sandoval hasn’t had at the pop-up or at Soho House. He’s turned to Aida Napoles at AGN Design for assistance.
“That’s the fun part, to really make it your own and not have any restraints,” Sandoval says.
Diego, 459 N. Ogden Avenue, planned for a summer opening.