"My great-grandmother Ina was the backbone of the family, and so everyone close and far were very honored to have something that we can all say that we've done for her," chef Brian Jupiter says of his New Orleans-style tavern's namesake located in the Wicker Park neighborhood of Chicago. Ina Mae Tavern opened in the summer of 2018 after Jupiter traveled with business partner Mark Domitrovich to Jupiter's hometown on a number of occasions and realized the Crescent City essence was missing in Chicago. "There was a gap," Jupiter says. "We try to bring as much of a New Orleans feel to [the restaurant] as possible."
Part of that New Orleans ethos seems to be a sense of community and transporting guests away from the Windy City with the atmosphere. There are different cooking classes hosted throughout the year (such as an upcoming one focusing on making pickles and preserves), game nights and live music performances throughout the week. "We have a relaxed feel, the authenticity of the food and a lot of live music—it really feels like you're somewhere else," Jupiter says.
When it comes to the food, Jupiter likes to describe it as Southern. "I don't always like to pigeonhole it into New Orleans, per se, because I believe that the gulf region has a lot of food that people don't necessarily know about or appreciate. I try to be as Southern as possible without losing the fact that New Orleans is where I come from." So yes there are beignets, po' boys ("I think [our fried shrimp po' boy is] one of the best sandwiches in the country") and gumbo (which he also thinks is the best in the city, if not the country)—but some of Jupiter's other favorites that diners might not immediately be drawn to on the menu are the blackened cauliflower (with aioli, lemon, garlic and tarragon) and eggplant Orleans (with crawfish beurre blanc and fine herbs).
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And for those diners looking to really make the most of the Ina Mae Tavern experience—aka anyone that can't move too far after indulging in the likes of seafood towers, fried chicken and pineapple and coconut bread pudding washed down with hurricanes or boozy slushies—there's an apartment Airbnb above the restaurant called The Beachwood Inn. "Back in the day in New Orleans we had a lot of these little corner grocery stores that had a little living area above it that either the store owner would live in or a close relative. It was an apartment already, and so we thought it would be cool to play off of that," Jupiter shares. "People really enjoy it." (And yes, you can order food to your room from the restaurant downstairs during kitchen hours.)
MICHELIN inspectors seem to enjoy the restaurant too, having awarding it the Bib Gourmand designation in the Chicago 2020 selection. "I was definitely surprised [and] excited," he shares. "I think all chefs have goals, and to be on that radar is definitely an honor."
Though New Orleans is of course a big part of the restaurant's DNA, chef Jupiter also credits his new city with the success he's gained thus far. "The restaurant scene in Chicago is always changing. There's always something new, so I think it forces you to stay on top of your game. You can't become stagnant because [there's] always something that's right behind you, and it's some really good stuff." (Add this to the list of examples of the benefits of healthy competition.)
"And there wasn't much out there in regards to New Orleans food in particular, especially something that really embraced the city and the culture the way that we do over at Ina Mae. Not only did we fill a void, but I felt like we took a risk and I think that's why we stand out."
Looking ahead, he wants to continue to expand his restaurant empire. "I want to open more locations, in particular on the South Side of Chicago . . . areas that are considered food deserts . . . and just do some food that's better than what people have over there and better than what they're used to having. Why not me?" he shares. "Cook for people that look like me" and to give them more options for better food.
The city awaits.
Hero image and photo of Brian Jupiter by Heather Talbert.