Good Graces

July 2022 View more

120 N. Hale St. Wheaton

By Phil Vettel

A beautiful 94-year-old building with a rich and varied history is home to one of the best fine-dining options in the western suburbs.

Ivy Restaurant opened 13 years ago, when owners Dick and Carol O’Gorman took over the Johnny D’s space in downtown Wheaton. Naming the restaurant for the vines that covered the building’s south wall, the O’Gormans quickly turned the restaurant into a steak-and-seafood destination.

Duck breast

But those 13 years, however noteworthy, are a mere blip in the building’s history. It was constructed as a funeral home and chapel, operating as such for more than 40 years. This explains the church-like interior of high, arched stone walls, stained glass windows, spotlit tapestries, and wood-trimmed wall niches that look like they were designed to hold organ pipes. (Fun fact: Though many assume otherwise, the space never served as a church.) After that, the building was home to the Doenges Stationery store for 30 years. Finally, the building’s potential as a restaurant was realized, first as 120 Ocean Place (an excellent restaurant in its time), then the short-lived Johnny D’s, and now Ivy.

Upstairs, you’ll find a private party space. The building, Dick O’Gorman says, was the first in Wheaton to have an elevator—and air conditioning. It’s worth the trip up just to stand in the loft area, which gives you a dramatic view of the dining room.

Under chef Christopher Dickens, the menu focuses on steaks, chops, and seafood dishes. Among the expected steaks, the Twin Tournedos is a standout. Two fillets, each two inches thick, are topped with béarnaise sauce and accompanied by mashed potatoes, Parmesan-crusted tomatoes, and grilled asparagus. Listed among the Ivy Specialties is the duck breast, two thick pieces served Old World style over a tangle of roasted carrots and braised cabbage; some cut-up plums give the dish a gentle sweetness.

Ivy’s Italian beef

On the seafood side, look for the pappardelle pasta, made with chunks of lobster and shrimp, along with mushrooms, cherry tomatoes, and just enough red-pepper flakes to give the dish extra zing. Black pepper shrimp, while nominally an appetizer on the menu, is a rich and filling dish of shrimp in a murky, Creole-esque sauce of black pepper and cream, along with single arancini (deep-fried rice ball), for an unexpected crunchy bonus.

Black pepper shrimp

The biggest-selling starter, especially in summer, is the shrimp and watermelon salad, a refreshing mix that includes arugula, feta cheese, and balsamic glaze. The offbeat choice would the Pig Wings, tiny bone-in pork shank nuggets that are deep fried and doused with barbecue sauce and an Asian-inspired glaze, coated with sesame seeds. (The bone jutting out of the center makes it easy to eat these things politely.) Fried Brussels sprouts, tossed with bacon and honey-cider sauce and jazzed up with sriracha aïoli, is a fine shareable starter.

Dickens’s globetrotting menu makes more stops as well, offering jambalaya, caprese flatbread, duck confit salad, and sweet and spicy barbecued ribs. (It’s probably easier to list what isn’t on the menu.)

Lunch offerings include a good selection of burgers and sandwiches, a shortened list of steaks and chops, and plenty of lighter fare. Unique to the menu is Ivy’s Italian beef, consisting of shaved beef and jus, smothered in mozzarella and served on a crusty French roll. Spicy giardiniera and horseradish cream come on the side. It’s sort of a cross between an Italian beef and a French dip sandwich, and it’s quite good. The accompanying fries are hot, crispy, and plentiful.

Ivy has a couple of outdoor options. The adjacent paved courtyard seats about 50 people among umbrella-topped tables; string lighting and that ivy-covered brick wall add visual appeal. Ivy also participates in Wheaton’s outdoor-dining program, in which a long stretch of Hale Street is tented, providing seating for the more than half a dozen restaurants lining that street. 

Photos courtesy of Ivy and Jen Banowetz (exterior)