River North dining can get, well, a little repetitive. As Robbie Schloss, owner of the forthcoming JoJo’s Milk Bar (23 W. Hubbard St.): “You get a lot of the same stale concepts that are copies of each other, plus transplants from Miami and Vegas. We don’t want to fit in. We want to be different.”
JoJo’s, at the very least, won’t look like anyplace else in the neighborhood. Its diner-inspired interior will offer a huge selection of over-the-top shakes and a comfort food-filled menu that’s straight out of the 1950s.
Here's a bit of background for the uninitiated: A milk bar is basically an old-fashioned soda fountain with a British name. It also refers to a spot where, back in the '20s and '30s, you could get ice cream drinks and basic dishes like sandwiches, instead of being tempted by the sin of booze at the pub.
But it’s 2019, the Temperance movement is largely dead, and JoJo’s will have plenty of cocktails. Still, the idea of a simple menu dominated by indulgent desserts remains.
That’s one of the reasons why top pastry chef Christine McCabe — who has experience at places from Glazed & Infused to Charlie Trotter’s — is the perfect person to run the kitchen.
"My vision is to bring an old school diner into modern time and create everything from scratch, with a lot of integrity,” says McCabe. “What comes to my mind is a soda shop, where you’ve got big, over-the-top shakes, whipped cream, lots of garnishes, and down-home cooking.”
Exactly half the menu will consist of desserts, including a large selection of pastries, frozen milk bars made with infused milks (think flavors like lavender blueberry and snickerdoodle), homemade Pop-Tarts, plenty of cookies, and a selection of hot chocolates.
I predict that the shakes are going to be the star — although given their size, you may have to share them.
The “Wonder Years” shake has a base of blue moon-flavored milk (which tastes like Fruity Pebbles cereal), a collar of vanilla icing, mini marshmallows and sugar stars, and a topper composed of ribbon candy, a heart gummy, cotton candy, and a cotton candy-coated marshmallow. The “Gold Digger” will feature a vanilla base, caramel-infused milk, gold candy rocks, a collar of icing with gold sugar, chocolate sprinkles, and snickerdoodle crumbs — all topped with a snickerdoodle cookie and a Rice Krispies star.
The savory side of the menu will be filled with familiar dishes. Look forward to big sandwiches, a double smashburger, fish and chips, lasagna, pot pie, and more. If you’re really not looking to move much for a few days post-meal, the JoJo’s fries will be just the thing for you. Inspired by a stuffed baked potato, this dish combines cheese, bacon, chives, and sour cream atop French fries.
Schloss wants to bring both a touch of whimsy as well as value to the neighborhood. “It’s expensive to be here, but it’s also very expensive for people to live here, so we want something they can afford multiple times a week,” he says. “We didn’t keep everything under $14, but we got pretty darn close.”
If you’re not looking to stop in for a full meal, JoJo’s will also have a takeout window that serves coffee and pastries in the morning and shakes and snacks at night. “That’s what Chicago is lacking, that most big cities have. If you go to New York, there’s food outside on every corner,” says Schloss. “It’ll be fun to bring that to the street.”
JoJo’s isn’t quite ready for prime time yet, but Schloss promises that it’ll be open sometime this winter.