By Jacob Zuckerman
In the face of a stagnant economy and a town rife with restaurant closures, Abigail’s American Bistro has managed great success in the face of adversity and improbability in the food business.
The name Abigail comes from the Bible and translates to, “a father’s joy,” which is exactly how owner and head chef of Abigail’s American Bistro, Michael Paulsen sees the restaurant.
“I never had these visions of grandeur,” said Paulsen, “I just like to cook and create.”
The restaurant maintains 4.5/5 stars on Yelp and Chicago Magazine has rated the place as having the seventh best burger in Chicago. All the success begs a question: what makes Abigail’s so good? And the answer lies with Paulsen, and a little bit of good luck.
Before opening the bistro, Paulsen had significant experience within the North Shore demographic. After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America he served as head chef at Ravinsloe Country Club, Conway Farms Golf Club, and Exmoor Country Club, the latter ultimately bringing him to Highland Park to establish his business.
Long Search for Right Spot
Before their opening in April 2009, Paulsen spent three years searching for the right location. After deliberating between spaces in the Ravinia area and Logan Square in Chicago, on a walk from the originally selected Ravinia property, Paulsen noticed a For-Sale sign in the window of the corner building at the present location. After a prospective Starbucks franchise failed to acquire a lease on the property, Paulsen seized the opportunity and took out a small business loan to open up shop.
“I found the place on a lark,” he says of his fortunate encounter, “but right when I saw it I knew how it was going to look when we opened it.”
The location itself is prime, resting on the corner of St. Johns and Roger Williams. Walking into the restaurant, the interior is designed to accentuate its corner location, playing off the landscape by taking a semi-circle shape. But the location itself is not being the only factor behind the success.
“We pride ourselves in service, it’s absolutely our number one concern,” says Paulsen, “we waited a long time to open to train our staff and didn’t open until we were ready.”
Watching the hustle and bustle of the staff, the effort is palpable. Due to its small size, the restaurant only takes dinner reservations before 6:00pm, and while they promise service, they make no farce of promising speed. A sign reads on the wall, “No grouchy pants allowed. If the wait time quoted is more than you have, please let us know, and we will remove your name from the list.”
Effort on Food and Service
While some patrons do get upset over the wait time and lack of reservations, it’s clear that the emphasis and effort lie on service and food quality, not timeliness. But beyond service, perhaps their most promising trait is the bistro’s undying resiliency.
“We have to be constantly evolving,” says Paulsen, citing recent food trends such as gluten allergies, vegetarianism, veganism, and pushes to only eat local and or organic products. “Our menu is always changing, thus so is our business.”
Keith Nelson, head chef of Birchwood Country Club and personal friend of Paulsen, has his own ideas on the restaurant’s success. “The small size works out well for them,” he says, “nothing draws a crowd like a crowd.”
But critics and staff aside, the patrons love Abigail’s and continue to wait in unprecedented lines to fill the joint. On Yelp Reviews, Lynn H. of Aurora Illinois called the restaurant, “Awesome, awesome, awesome!” She continued, “I can’t compliment this place enough. Excellent food, excellent service.”
Corey B. of Highland Park also wrote, “The restaurant is small, but the coziness left us feeling like we were part of a small secret family-style club. Really loved this place.”
And it isn’t just the common folk of Illinois with an affinity towards the restaurant. The place has a highlight reel of local and national celebrities filling the tables including Scotty Pippin, BJ Armstrong, Lovie Smith, John Paxson, Marc Trestman, Dale Sveum, and Yo-Yo Ma, who once even rented out the entire restaurant for a private lunch before performing at the nearby Ravinia festival.
According to various staff, the crowd favorites tend to be the burger, the octopus, and the fish.
So what can Abigail’s American Bistro’s success be attributed to? Perhaps it’s the stellar service, or the eclectic menu, the critically acclaimed food, a sports fan hoping to catch a glimpse of their favorite athlete, or even just serendipity. Nelson theorized, “It’s probably not any one thing. There’s no formula, success comes from a perfect storm.”
Whatever the case, Paulsen is nowhere near slowing down. After a chef had overcooked the duck confit salad, he started experimenting with the dish to turn it into a duck confit rillete and is planning on testing the plate out as a special sometime soon.
Reflecting on the restaurants success, he says, “It’s been four and a half years and we’ve only been getting busier. For a restaurateur, it’s the dream.”
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