It’s early in the morning, and while last night’s diners are still sleeping off their food comas, Stephanie Izard is walking through a space at 820 W. Randolph. Sunlight shines through the large windows and sawdust still covers the floor as Izard runs her hands along the bar, peers behind a glass partition and examines light fixtures. The space that was once home to swank restaurant Red Light now has reclaimed wood, a glass-encased kitchen and plenty of sunlight. And at the end of November it will reopen as Little Goat, the hotly anticipated new restaurant from culinary darling and Girl & the Goat Chef Izard and the Boka Restaurant Group.
“It’s a celebration and a shout out to a true diner,” says Izard, who has been working on the project for more than two years. Located right across the street from Girl & the Goat — which opened in 2010 and still has a three-month waiting list — Little Goat will serve up classic American fare in an environment that honors traditional diner design elements such as picture menus, old school-inspired server uniforms and food that warms the soul. “The menu is straight up comfort food,” she says. “I think Girl & the Goat is as well, but I’ll be able to make things like biscuits and gravy and patty melts, those things that everybody craves once in a while.”
It’s been a long road to Little Goat. “We wanted to open a second restaurant about a month after opening Girl & the Goat, since our butcher area and bread baking area were kind of cramped in,” she says. The initial plan was to move the bread program to a new location and add a coffee shop, but when the Red Light space became vacant, the project grew into a two-story, multifunctional space. Now, Little Goat encompasses not only a coffee shop and bakery (which will produce Girl & the Goat’s delicious bread offerings), but also the diner, a second-floor demo kitchen where Izard will offer cooking classes, a late-night bar and a shop area, where you’ll find paraphernalia such as t-shirts, hats and goat bobbleheads. For Izard’s fans, it’s access to her food that doesn’t involve an impossible-to-get table: Little Goat will be open from 7 a.m. to 2 a.m., the diner won’t take reservations and people can grab her baked goods and coffee on the go. For Izard, it’s a way to flex her creative muscles beyond the plate. “I’ve been involved in every single decision that’s been made, from the design elements to hiring every person who works here,” says Izard. “I’m just excited to see it all come together.”
And so is Chicago: the buzz around Little Goat’s opening has reached a fever pitch, which is unsurprising to anyone who has followed Izard’s culinary ascent. Her first restaurant, Scylla, received rave reviews, including a best new restaurant nod from Bon Appétit, but she shuttered it just two years later, shortly before starring on Bravo’s “Top Chef.” She won the competition, and the victory catapulted her from critic’s favorite to bona fide celebrity. Soon after Rob Katz and Kevin Boehm approached Izard about collaborating on a project. The result? Girl & the Goat, the acclaimed West Loop restaurant that still commands hours-long waits on any given night and attracts almost any celebrity that rolls through the city. Now, at 36 years old, Izard is one of the most recognizable faces in the Chicago culinary scene.
“It took a little bit of getting used to,” she says of being approached by fans. “It’s fun, and I always get to meet new people. Sometimes when I’m in the grocery store in my pajamas I’d rather just hide, but at the same time it’s such a unique feeling and experience. I figure my life is an open book: This is my fiancé and this is my dog and this is our life. Welcome.” Her down to earth, open arms approach extends to those in her everyday life, too. Many of her Girl & the Goat staffers have been with Izard since the opening, creating a warm, family-like environment for her team. “We all kind of think of it like our baby, and it’s nice to know I’m surrounded by people who care about the restaurant as much as I do.”
While opening up a new restaurant and keeping things humming at one of the city’s most popular spots, Izard is somehow finding time to plan her October 2013 nuptials to fiancé Gary Valentine, a craft beer consultant. “We’re going to have some of our chef friends make food, and some of Gary’s friends are going to brew beer and it will be a big party. We’re just trying to secure a spot right now.”
As for staying sane in the midst of all the madness, she recharges by competing on a swim team at West Loop Athletic Club. “I was a swimmer growing up and I just got back into it,” she says, adding that she’s excited to compete in upcoming swim meets. “I can be competitive but I don’t have to think about work. I can let my mind take a break.”
Her day-to-day operations are about to amp up, but at the end of the day, Izard’s life has become decidedly chilled out. “My fiancé and I sit on the couch and eat pasta and watch TV and go to bed,” she says. “My life has become so simple outside of work.” And it’s safe to say she comes home from work happy. “I’ve found a way to balance being in the kitchen and being able to create things but at the same time getting to talk to people every day. It’s the best of both worlds.”
Little Goat opens this month at 820 W. Randolph, (312) 492-6262, Littlegoatchicago.com
Story by Molly Each | Photos by Maria Ponce for Splash