Chef Michael Lachowicz is widely acclaimed as one of the deans of French cuisine in Chicagoland, with his two Winnetka restaurants Aboyer and George Trois regularly making best-of lists. That’s why, when I saw a social media post from his group about opening a Mexican restaurant called Fonda in Evanston … I won’t lie, at first I thought it was some sort of New Year’s joke. Instead, it turns out to be one of the most exciting early openings of 2023, as well as a lovely story about growth and loyalty in the restaurant business.

Let’s be clear up front what this is not — this is not an example of the (all too common) story of a chef who spent a little bit of time traveling somewhere around the world and came back with a few recipes and an idea for a new venture that may or may not have some issues with cultural appropriation. “I’m not Mexican at all,” Lachowicz says. “It would be disrespectful of me to pretend that I am — it’s one thing if you’re Rick Bayless and you immersed yourself in Mexican cuisine for decades. I did that with French food; I’m not going to do that again.”

Instead, Fonda is a project designed and run by three of Lachowicz’s long-time staff, all of whom are of Mexican descent. Carlos Cahue, the current sous chef at Aboyer, will be running the kitchen, along with Miguel Escobar (a long-time chef at George Trois) and Sergio Angel (who has run Lachowicz’s wine program for years). Lachowicz describes Fonda as a logical next step for these three, who have become experts in their field over many years working at George Trois. “This is sweat equity for dealing with my crazy for the last 20 years. They were good enough to stick around when I was sometimes less than savory,” says Lachowicz.

For Cahue, “It’s an equal measure of exciting and terrifying.” He says, “The excitement is having the ability to share my cuisine with an audience that doesn’t see it coming. By that I mean fans of Michael, Miguel, and Sergio. I get to a part of that fabric and that brings me instant credibility. That’s the terrifying part. Now I have to deliver on those expectations.”

The cuisine at Fonda will be inspired by many of the indigenous Mexican flavors that Cahue, Escobar, and Angel grew up with, and will stick to a casual dining format. “I already have a fine dining menu called George Trois, I’m not going to compete with myself. There’s going to be nothing on the menu over $22.” In addition to a dining room, there will also be a bar space with a 2 a.m. weekend license, the Cantina at Fonda, and a walk-up window serving tacos and snacks. The restaurant will occupy the former Stained Glass Bistro space on Benson Avenue in Evanston.

Lachowicz has helped with the development of the menu, but it’s been as much a learning as a teaching experience for him. “I went into this project with expectations and what I really needed to do was shut up, I was getting schooled,” he says. Over two years, the chefs designed and redesigned dishes, presenting them as staff meals or specials, and making sure that every dish was perfect. At first, Lachowicz rejected some dishes out of hand — “we aren’t going to serve stuffed peppers” — but after trying the dishes, he changed his tune. That stuffed pepper is twice-roasted, filled with freshly ground pork shoulder and beef short ribs along with roasted tomatoes. It’s covered with toasted nuts and set on a base of a green mole made with toasted pepitas.

Fonda is set for a late January opening and will be open five days a week for dinner at the start. Expect a small wine program and a solid cocktail program (but, Lachowicz promises, no wall of tequila, because “we aren’t that place.”) The goal is to expand to seven days a week, with the walk-up window serving treats for breakfast and lunch.

Lachowicz is providing leadership but is not planning to take a major role in the kitchen after opening — his plan is to stick to his original restaurants. At least, that is, until Cahue needs something. “I told him — I cannot wait until you’re short-handed on the cold station and I can come in and work all night and call you Chef.”