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Calculated Risk 

A former bean counter takes a flier on deluxe groceries

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New customers at Southport Grocery and Cafe often can't resist leaning over the counter and whispering, "So, you know what this place used to be?" Looking around the modern, airy store and restaurant, with its beech floors and a subdued color scheme of chocolate brown, pale blue, and white, you'll find no evidence of its prior incarnation. But residents of the Lakeview neighborhood remember the business that occupied this address for several decades: Cooney Funeral Home. "I used to walk past it two or three times a day," says Lisa Santos, who opened the cafe this past summer. "When I first looked at the space, it was very much a funeral home--the carpeting, the heavy draperies." The half of the business that's now hers, she explains, "used to be the reception and viewing room. I didn't end up with the morgue."

The cafe is more concerned with earthly comforts. Tastefully packaged condiments, pasta, herbs, and the like are displayed on chrome shelves, a banquette of white tables lines a wall, and down-tempo ambient grooves play at a conversational level.

A lifetime foodie who still owns the first cookbook she received at the age of five, Santos fondly remembers cooking and baking at her grandmother's side as a kid in Milwaukee. But she began her adult life as a certified public accountant.

"It was definitely what I wanted to do at the time," she says. "I'm very organized and analytical. Food was secondary." As her passion for food developed, her dinner parties became four-course affairs where she never cooked the same thing twice. Longtime friend Arlene Matthews says, "I had friends who couldn't wait to come to my parties because Lisa was cooking. They'd come in saying, 'Where's the food?' and I would be like, 'Oh, and also my daughter is getting baptized today.'" She recalls a sit-down, multicourse dinner party that Santos threw for 30 guests. "It was unbelievable," Matthews says. It was obvious to Santos's friends and family that she would end up in the food industry. The only question was when.

"I always said I'd know when the time was right," she says. After getting her bachelor's degree in accounting and working for over 15 years as a CPA, Santos made her move. With a vague notion of opening a restaurant, she started taking classes at the Cooking and Hospitality Institute of Chicago and attending fine-foods trade shows.

Finally in May, armed with a cooking degree, a chef (Emily Lamb, whom Santos met at CHIC), and a list of artisanal food suppliers, Santos said goodbye to the nine-to-five. She opened Southport Grocery and Cafe in August.

"It's pretty fancy for a grocery store," she admits, surveying the space. "You wouldn't want to come here with your Jewel or Dominick's list." The grocery section sells a variety of honeys, some flavored with star anise and chili, imported pastas, and homemade granola. Among the vinegars, one can find a $49.95 Fini aged balsamic and right below it a French white-wine vinegar priced at $2.50. Santos focuses on high-quality domestic products, supplemented by a few gourmet imports. The store also has a small selection of reasonably priced wines and microbrew beers and a cooler of gourmet cheese and butter, plus carryout items like sandwiches and ginger-carrot bisque.

Then there's the cafe, which features a stick-to-your-ribs selection of what Santos calls "modern comfort food." "It's like the basics that your mom used to make, but kicked up a little bit," she says. Does it remind her of the food her own mom used to make? She shrugs and says, "My mom was a good, basic cook." Santos's own interpretations of standard comfort foods are decidedly nonstandard. Her grilled cheese sandwich, for instance, is brie, spinach, and mushrooms on ciabatta with a couscous-fennel-apple-walnut salad. It costs $8. Also on the menu: a hearty thyme-roasted half chicken served with macaroni and cheese for $12, and Santos's version of meat and potatoes: beef short ribs slow-braised to such succulence that they dissolve at the nudge of a fork, accompanied by mascarpone mashed potatoes (also $12).

The children's menu offers such mother-approved standbys as buttered noodles and PB & J with the crusts cut off, both with sides of applesauce and steamed veggies, served on ceramic TV trays. Santos says, "Everything is portioned out, so nothing touches. You should see their faces light up when we put that plate in front of them. I think kids drag their parents here. It's important that people know that children are welcome." (One wonders how welcome those kids will be after they pull a few of those pretty $50 bottles of vinegar off the low shelves, though.)

Before opening her store, Santos "didn't have a clue" what her new life would be like and admits it has not been glamorous. Typically she's at the shop from open to close, working the register, cooking, cleaning, or up to her neck in paperwork. The dinner parties, for the time being, are on hold. "If you looked in my refrigerator at home," she says, laughing, "you'd never believe I was a chef. It's full of to-go boxes. Luckily my friends are very supportive."

Matthews, Santos's friend, takes it more or less in stride. "Oh, we all understand," she says. "We all own small businesses. But every now and then I do get a pang: 'Oh my god, those cupcakes.' She used to just bring them over, but now I have to pay for them!" Southport Grocery and Cafe is at 3552 N. Southport, 773-665-0100.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Anthony Tahler.

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