When I moved to Chicago, I (like many fresh transplants) first took an apartment in Lakeview. The third-floor flat was a 10-minute walk from a charming, two-room cafe called Uncommon Ground. The little coffee house became a favorite haunt thanks to its ample outdoor seating, a tasty menu of breakfast items and sandwiches, the availability of both excellent coffee and decently priced wine and, moreover, a laid-back, neighborly, distinctly un-Wrigleyville-like vibe. I moved out of the area when my lease was up and didn't wind up visiting the cafe for a couple years. Then, one day, I found myself on the corner of Clark and Grace, dumbstruck at a massive sign over a sleek new entrance for what claimed to be the same little cafe; Uncommon Ground had expanded into the corner lot, which now housed a breathtaking, custom-designed bar adjacent to a cluster of plush armchairs and a cozy fireplace. The menu had bloomed into a thoughtful, artfully presented array of seasonal dishes and artisanal drinks. An army of smiling, genuinely happy-looking hosts and servers greeted me on the way in. Live music jammed in the back room. The transformation was extraordinary.
With the opening of a second store on Devon, Uncommon Ground has evolved once again. Now it's more than just a restaurant, bar or coffee shop; it's a hub for community action and a model of green entrepreneurship. Owners Helen and Michael Cameron have turned their Edgewater branch into a weekly farmers market, an educational tool, a music venue legitimate enough to host World Music Festival concerts and—if all goes well—a certified organic farm. Between running two restaurants and preparing to meet with the Midwest Organic Services Association, Helen Cameron found the time to give me a comprehensive tour of the new restaurant from the newly reinforced foundation to the green roof.
"We didn't change too much of the interior, but we made an effort to be as green as possible in everything we did...low-VOC paints; these chairs are from a furniture maker in Michigan; the tables are made from trees that once stood in Jackson Park," she tells me, running her fingers along the polished surface of a blonde wood two-top. Uncommon Ground worked with Horigan Urban Forest Products to make the bulk of its furnishings from fallen and reclaimed local trees. Helen gestured to the hostess stand constructed from what looked like thousands of unfinished Jenga pieces. "The hostess stand and fireplace are made from scrap end pieces. We didn't want any waste, so we used the scrap as a mosaic."
After a quick peek in the kitchen we head downstairs to take a gander at the dual water heaters, powered by rooftop solar panels. State tax breaks covered a chunk of the cost of installation and Helen anticipates the panels will pay for themselves after two years. As we navigate through the basement, she points out the new steel I-beam columns installed to support the weight of the green roof. The green roof—this is why I called in the first place; this is what I am most excited to see. We leave the basement, head outside and climb a steel staircase to the raised deck that covers about 75-percent of the Uncommon Ground roof.
As my gaze clears the floor of the deck, it immediately falls down an aisle formed by two rows of raised wooden planters on casters. I reach for my sunglasses to cut the glare of the setting sun and get a better look at the rooftop farm. Healthy billows of lettuce and arugula grace the elevated beds. Steel-framed nets rise about four feet above each pair of planters, providing a place for sugar snap pea vines to grab hold. Smaller custom-made window boxes line the perimeter of the deck, holding young cucumbers, carrots and herbs. The scene is partially flanked by the glossy black faces of immense solar panels. Two inviting wooden deck chairs are angled nearby. On the far corner of the roof two beehives gaze down over Glenwood like a modernist interpretation of Batman and Robin.
"I give tours all the time," Helen tells me (which comes as no surprise; her presentation is eloquent, concise and highly informative). "A lot of the work is to educate clientele. It's possible to grow a lot of food in a relatively small space. We have the Waldorf School coming in to help with the garden two days a week." As we're chatting, one of the chefs has slipped silently onto the roof to harvest vegetables for a meal.
Beehives are another uncommon sight on the restaurant's rooftop.
"We're trying to figure out how to harvest and serve the same or next day so people taste the freshest possible food. There's so much to learn," Helen says with a smile. "But we hire chefs who believe it's important to serve food that's seasonal, local. A lot of people don't even think about it."
What's most impressive about the minds behind Uncommon Ground is not only that they do think about it, but that they think about all of it: the stuff beyond the food, the entire input and output of their restaurant, how it touches the community and how it can continue to grow. Every Friday evening the Uncommon Ground lot hosts a farmers market with family-oriented activities. The restaurant's kitchen grease is donated to a Loyola bio-diesel class. Then there's the service to the Waldorf students, urban kids who get to see and feel and have a hand in the production of food.
What about the food? I stuck around for a light snack and a microbrew while jotting down a few extra notes and wound up staying for coffee and dessert. The freshness of the ingredients and care put into each recipe saturated each bite, from the tomato puree soup to the s'mores pie with homemade marshmallows. Magnificent!
It took a move from the regimented lawnscapes of the suburbs to the congestion of a major metropolis for Sharon to look twice at what she puts in the trash, down the sink and into her own body. She reports fortnightly on her endeavors to change "greening" from calculated deviation to a practicable way of life. You can contact her here.