Lula Cafe is Now One of Chicago’s Best Places to Eat, Drink

Lula Cafe Diana Hawkins_Headshot

A pioneer in Logan Square’s dining landscape and one of Chicago’s preeminent farm-to-table progenitors, Lula Cafe has long been heralded as a must-dine destination. But with newly appointed beverage director Diana Hawkins at the helm, the restaurant is becoming just as coveted for its drinks. A Level 2-certified sommelier by the Court of Master Sommeliers and an alum of such places as City Winery and Dusek’s Board & Beer, Hawkins is well-equipped to breathe fresh new life into the beverage program at Lula Cafe. The results? One of the most exciting, dynamic (and for the time being, underrated) drinking destinations in Chicago.

Matt Kirouac: What brought you to Chicago?

Diana Hawkins: Long story short, my first job moved me every six months. I eventually got tired of moving around and wanted to just be still for awhile. I knew that meant moving to a full-blown city—otherwise, I’d just get restless. I’d already done LA and I’m probably the only person who cannot abide NYC, so I decided on Chicago. I also have some family here. I moved without having a secure job, so I figured, worst case, I could always crash with one of them.

MK: How do you feel about Chicago’s beverage scene as a whole?

DH: I think it’s in a pretty exciting place right now. There’s a lot of talent in our market on all sides—bartenders, brewers, and somms. Even our coffee scene is exploding with roasters like Metric and Sparrow approaching it in a different way. There’s a new bar opening up almost every week. If not that, then it’s a new brewery or taproom. One could argue about the sustainability of that pace, but I’m just happy to see the industry growing. However, I am concerned about the lack of wine bars. I read all these stats on how Americans are drinking more and more wine, but the two newest wine bars to open, Bom Bolla and Bascule, closed last year. Vera, Rootstock, and Webster’s are holding it down, but I’d love to see that scene grow this year.

MK: What is it like to build a wine program from scratch?

DH: I spent hours researching the regions I wanted to feature and their classic producers. I woke up in the middle of the night to add to the list or refine it. I researched and sought inspiration from existing wine lists; not just in Chicago, but NYC, LA, and beyond. I ran from anything I’d previously encountered, lest I be seen as just copying my mentor. I drew up what I thought was my ideal, all 250-plus bottles of it, and immediately trashed it after reading this quote in an article: “Somms today, they’re just buying shit; yea it’s food friendly, but does it fit with the concept of the place?” I realized I’d built a really classic wine list for a restaurant that wasn’t going for classic. The food used classic techniques, but was definitely not steak au poivre. There wasn’t a team of sommeliers or wine captains to help manage the inventory I envisioned. There wasn’t the storage space. It just wasn’t going to work.

I had checked in with Chef a couple of times before about the wine list, but it wasn’t until a long conversation with him about his overall vision for the restaurant and guest experience that I really nailed down the theme. I did some extensive revising and whittled it down to 130 or so. I like having a firm handle on my inventory, so being able to count and locate each bottle in a timely fashion was important. My first inventory took about two hours, so I stuck with the 130 cap. I don’t really have an analogy for building a wine list and can’t think of an emotion to describe it. It’s an exciting, nerve-wracking, heartwrenching process that is ultimately you trying to construct a perfect shopping list for strangers.

MK: At Lula, you’re not only covering wine, but beer and spirits. What is it like managing such a wide range of beverage options?

DH: I have this crazy idea that each piece of the program should echo each other. So if I am focusing on sustainably farmed wines made by people on passionate pursuits, then I want my beers and spirits to have a similar theme. It makes it more difficult, but I prefer the program to be as cohesive as I can get it. It’s a fun challenge, but it helps that I have a deep appreciation for all beverages, not just wine. I’ve worked at wine-focused places like City Winery, and places that are decidedly not, like Dusek’s and Punch House. Those experiences have helped me on my search for craft beers and spirits.

MK: How would you describe the beverage program at Lula nowadays?

lula 2 by anthony tahlier

DH: When I spoke to Jason (Hammel) about Lula’s history, the major thing that struck me wasn’t the farm-to-table aspect—yes, it’s there and affects every aspect of the culinary side, but I was doubly impressed by his ingenuity and ability to merge several of his passions into one cohesive vision. I try to find producers who also do that. People who might not have always made wine or been in that world, but decided come hell or high water they were going to do it. Or someone from Burgundy who went to Serbia because the soils were too ideal to ignore. A tequila producer who thinks the yeast you ferment with affects the final product, so they use different yeast for blanco, reposado, and anejo. Like Lula itself, the entire beverage program is ever-evolving. We literally have guests who come in every day, so I try to keep it fresh. It’s important to me to introduce new items to each category, not just the wine list. That’s where I started, of course, but am currently in the midst of refreshing our tea program. Our single-origin coffee is next and then I’ll circle back to cocktails, beer, and wine, and so on.

MK: What are some notable wines, beers, cocktails you’ve added to the menu?

DH: Recently I’m pretty stoked about having Marz Brewing on draft. We’re pouring their “Hop Gose the Weasel” hopped gose. I am kind of obsessed with the way hopped sours come together. It sounds nuts, but the sour balances the hops and the hops add a nice herbaceous note that mellows out the sour. It’s the perfect food beer. I had a few while traveling in North Carolina, but it was a surprisingly hard thing to find once I got to Chicago. Not a ton of people seem to be experimenting with it from what I can tell. Penrose also has one, but it’s not out yet.

Wine-wise I am in the process of changing over for spring, but am in love with this Riesling pét-nat by Red Tail Ridge. They’re out of the Finger Lakes in New York. It’s one of the best sparkling wines I’ve had in months. Bright, lots of stone and orchard fruit, ripe orange, honeycomb, dry but not austere, with wonderfully textured bubbles. All I need now is a beachfront hammock and a straw.

Cocktails are really fun because I get to collaborate with our bar team. They are some of the most underrated bartenders around town. I give them loosely what I’m looking for, like “stirred whiskey cocktail,” and they always blow my mind. The Passenger is one of my favorites right now because it pairs rye whiskey with Lillet Rose and Luxardo Bitter (like Campari). Three things I’d never think to put together, but they work so well it’s undeniably delicious.

Lula Cafe
2357 N. Kedzie Ave.