The Little Cantina That Could

Appears in the January 2022 issue.

By Peter Gianopulos 

Jim Trader, a co-owner of Front Street Cantina in Naperville, would like to forget the spring of 2020. COVID lockdowns. Empty restaurants. Makeshift takeout operations. And then—just as the state’s indoor-dining restrictions were to be lifted—came the flood. A rehab crew working above the restaurant punctured a sprinkler pipe. Water gushed, seeping down through floorboards and into the walls like something out of the book of Genesis. You know it’s bad, says Trader, when you can see clear through the back of your restaurant. Trader and his co-owners could have shuttered, but ultimately chose otherwise. “When you truly love something,” Trader says, “you just have to go for it.” So they rebuilt. A new bar sits in a revamped dining room, complete with a desert-inspired mural. New chef John Heenie, formerly of Fire & Wine, has changed most of the menu, while keeping classics like its Yucatecan pork and Campos tacos. And an outdoor beer garden will debut soon. “We’re invested in this community,” says Trader. “Regulars I’ve known for years bring in their children now. That’s what makes this all worthwhile.”