Elgin's Red Poppy Bistro reopens after expansion
That's how long Red Poppy Bistro owners Matthew Habib and his wife Jennifer Polit said the European-style cafe was officially open last March before the governor halted indoor dining because of the pandemic.
"We made social media announcements that we were ready for dine-in, please come in, and within two hours of that post we're like, 'sorry, we're closed, get out,'" Habib said. "It was crazy."
Being forced to close on opening day might have been the death knell for many restaurants. But flash forward a little more than a year and the Red Poppy Bistro is open at more than twice it's original size.
The pandemic may have actually been a blessing in disguise, according to Polit.
"It was disappointing to have to close for a while," she said, adding they reopened for carryout. "But then we had summer and outdoor dining, and with our restaurant being so tiny, it almost gave us more than we envisioned for this spot to begin with."
"We saw how people really enjoyed what we did, and it gave us the confidence to move forward and expand," she said.
The couple, who own the Legit Dogs and Ice food truck and previously operated a restaurant of the same name, partnered with friend and landlord Andrew Cuming to expand the bistro into spaces that had been occupied by Anderson Trophy and Artistic Framing & Supplies, doubling the square footage. The move provided space for a bigger kitchen and two dining rooms, one of which can be closed off for groups. The new space has 48 seats and 16 tables, well more than the handful in their original footprint.
It took longer than they anticipated -- they closed right after Thanksgiving to do the expansion and reopened this week -- but they say they're happy with the results.
The dining rooms are a deliberate hodgepodge of differently sized and shaped tables and mismatched chairs. The food is served on random pieces of china, much of which was donated by customers and other items they picked up at antique stores. "I'm sure every one of these dishes has a history, and that really fits in with the type of food we serve," Habib said.
Habib said the inspiration for the European-styling of the restaurant came from a trip to Krakow, Poland. Seeing tiny kitchens with no open-flame cooking and small, homey dining rooms, he knew he could make it work in Elgin.
"These places are like eating in someone's kitchen," Habib said.
The menu leans toward Eastern European comfort foods like sausage and pierogi, in addition to French classics like crepe and quiche. And though he felt like it didn't belong on the menu, Habib's chicken potpie is a customer favorite. While they're billed as individual servings, "they're seven inches and weigh like three pounds," he said.
Though they've had trouble hiring staff, the restaurant opened this week for carryout and the dining room is available if people want to eat in without table service.
Tara Morrison, who works nearby, stopped in for lunch Friday.
"I'm thrilled they reopened," Morrison said. "That smell when you come in is wonderful, and the food is just as good."