Uncle Julio’s Closes on North Avenue After 32 Years

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After 32 years in Lincoln Park, Uncle Julio’s closed its doors on Tuesday along North Avenue without warning. The Mexican chain’s arrival in Chicago more than three decades ago was part of a construction boom in the rapidly gentrifying area.

A statement from Uncle Julio’s President RJ Thomas blames rising rent costs for the closure.

“All of our other locations remain open; this location’s closing is due to rising rental rates on our lease,” a portion of Thomas’s statement reads. “Our employees have all been offered positions at our other restaurants so they can continue as valued members of the Uncle Julio’s family. As a company, we continue to grow, and we look forward to welcoming guests to our newest location in Frisco, Texas, in April.”

Uncle Julio’s opening at 855 W. North Avenue came before the city brokered a deal with Apple to build a store at the northwest corner of Halsted and North in 2010. Uncle Julio’s opened six years before Crate & Barrel unveiled a flagship location on Clybourn and North in 1998 on a piece of land where a location of Byron’s Red Hots once stood.

A Tribune story from 1992 describes a scene of “Old Town and Lincoln Park yuppies and buppies” that kept “the valet parkers hopping on the weekends.” The wave of development continued west into Wicker Park and Bucktown, eventually marching toward Logan Square and Avondale.

Moving trucks were parked outside on Wednesday morning and paper signs were taped to the doors calling the decision to close difficult and offering workers jobs at other locations. The closest Uncle Julio’s is in suburban Skokie at Old Orchard. Other locations include Woodfield Mall in Schaumburg, Naperville, and Orland Park.

But before Uncle Julio became a shopping mall staple, the restaurant had an ambitious menu with cooking up items like quail — at least before private equity firm L Catterton bought the chain in 2017. (the group also owns Bartaco, another chain that debuted last year in Chicago with a Bucktown location; Chicago-born Protein Bar is also part of the firm’s portfolio).

Former server and bartender Monica Beukema left Uncle Julio’s years ago and no longer works in the restaurant industry. Her six years of work at the North Avenue restaurant were important. It’s where she met her husband; she says she’s one of five couples who met their significant other while employed at the North Avenue Uncle Julio’s). It was also a lucrative job for a server: “You could make as much money there as anywhere,” she says.

But the restaurant now feels out of place. Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises in 1989 opened the first location of Bub City a block west on Weed Street. That’s closed, as is Crobar, the club where Chicago Bulls star Dennis Rodman used to hang out in the ‘90s.

When former workers, some of whom had spent more than two decades at the restaurant, began texting Beukema about the closure, she says she wasn’t surprised. She remains disappointed that her former colleagues weren’t given warning. Restaurant workers are often treated as disposable, and Beukema wonders if it’s a trend and brings up how Etta River North employees were treated after that restaurant closed earlier in the year.

Some of Beukema’s former colleagues will take jobs at other locations, but it doesn’t take away the shock of finding out your place of employment is no longer in operation, she says. The restaurant is already listed as permanently closed on Google. Uncle Julio’s brass didn’t provide a reason for the lack of notice to workers.

“We want to express gratitude to our guests for sharing great times with us at our North Avenue location for the past 30 years,” Thomas’s statement also reads. “It’s important to know that we remain committed to our presence in Illinois, and to offering our signature Uncle Julio’s dining experience through our six other thriving restaurants in the greater Chicago metro area.”

The area has seen shifts. Goose Island Beer closed its original Clybourn brewpub in December after 35 years. The New York Times is lamenting the high cost of real estate down the street at the Collection at North and Sheffield in a recent story about the impact of rising commercial real estate on Downtown areas. Note: Lincoln Park, or the so-called “Clybourn Corridor,” isn’t in the Loop.

Labels aside, suburbanites won’t have any trouble finding a frozen margarita at Uncle Julio’s. City dwellers will just have to make the commute, or just enjoy other amenities and restaurants urban areas offer.

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