Sunnyside Up — How Yolk hatched an empire

Ada Foley |
Food And Dining

by Ada Foley | Contributing Writer

Much like chickens and eggs, it’s hard to tell which came first: Chicago’s ravenous weekend brunch set, or the morning menus popping up at every bar/restaurant clamoring to serve this coveted crowd. And if that brunch spot is a spacious and bright one, with portions that practically overflow onto your dining partner’s plate, you’ve got a winning formula—one Taki Kastanis figured out back in 2006.

“I was trying to offer comfortable food, big portions, and just a good quality breakfast,” Kastanis says of the first Yolk, which opened in the South Loop in the fall of 2006. Decked in goldenrod and royal blue with plush vinyl seating and semi-private booths to balance out all 4,200 square-feet and 180 seats, it’s no wonder “it was a big splash in Chicago,” as Kastanis paints it. It’s possible, though, that the Cinnamon Roll French Toast, Banana Blueberry Crunch Pancakes, and Eggs Benedict also may have had something to do with it.

After three years, a second Yolk hatched in River North, and a year after that, Kastanis took the concept to Streeterville. Just last December, a fourth location opened in the West Loop. The neighborhoods might be different, but the Yolk experience remains the same, with each location flaunting the same size and seating.

 “I was trying to offer comfortable food, big portions, and just a good quality breakfast,” Kastanis says of the first Yolk, which opened in the South Loop in the fall of 2006.

"It’s always the same,” Kastanis says. “You can order breakfast or lunch any time of the day from the same menu.” The same goes for the décor: “Most important is our clean, open look with counter seating facing the kitchen,” Kastanis says. “This is where all the action happens—cooks dishing up food and servers grabbing it. The open kitchen is a big part of the design.” While some of the neighborhoods attract more tourists looking for the city breakfast bustle (aka Streeterville), Kastanis strives for consistency. “We try to offer the same vibe at all Yolk locations.”

That vibe recently spread to a Lakeview restaurant space at Diversey and Pine Grove, where Kastanis opened the most nostalgic Yolk yet. “I knew the space, I grew up there,” he says of the corner that once housed his grandmother’s 24-hour diner, Granny’s. “It was in my family since 1978—my grandma’s place for 25 years. We’d eat there every Sunday.” The restaurant morphed into two other dining establishments over the years before coming full circle and opening as a Yolk in early March.

The latest location might be smaller and more neighborhood-y, but the exposed ceiling and ducts are painted the signature Yolk blue, Tetris-esque seatbacks separate the booths, and servers still juggle overflowing plates and freshly-squeezed juices effortlessly around the packed room on a typical Sunday morning. “It’s nice to see the changes we made to make it look like a Yolk,” says Kastanis. “It was kind of run down, so we did a nice full remodel.”

But no matter the history of the space, a dining crowd comes for the food, and Yolk has stuck to their same large portions and solid, never-ending menu options for brunch and lunch since the beginning. Classic egg dishes, breakfast wraps, and six types of Benedicts (from Pot Roast to Caprese) come with a mound of skin-on red potatoes and fresh fruit. Omelets are made with a whopping five eggs, and range from the healthy California, with avocado and veggies, to the spicy Hey Ricky, with chorizo, jalapeños, onions, and cheese. “A lot of the spicy dishes have been moving extremely well,” Kastanis smiles. “It seems brunch trends are leading toward hot sauces and spicy dishes.”

The sweet side of the menu beckons with Nutella Crêpes, Challah French Toast, and an indulgent Bacon Waffle. Lunch items get less real estate on the menu, but don’t skimp on classic selections: burgers, wraps, and massive salads like the popular Citrus Blast with chicken, fruit, nuts, blue cheese crumbles, and a mango-Chardonnay vinaigrette. The number-one selling wrap is the Buffalo Chicken, which shows that even lunch-goers yearn for heat.

 Omelets are made with a whopping five eggs, and range from the healthy California, with avocado and veggies, to the spicy Hey Ricky, with chorizo, jalapeños, onions, and cheese.

While taking certain specials off the menu would undoubtedly cause a riot, Kastanis rotates specials and seasonal menu items often, asking customers for requests. He’s started to incorporate a few healthier items like a Kale Salad with blueberries, chicken, and blueberry balsamic dressing; a Southwestern Quinoa Salad; and even Housemade Greek Yogurt with fresh berries and granola.

“We’ve cleaned some items up a bit, made some less confusing. But our changes are pretty much going off what our customers are looking for,” he says. On the horizon are alternative milk options, as well as gluten-free items. “We’re hearing a lot about gluten-free, but we haven’t done it yet, just because it’s hard to cook gluten-free food on a grill that’s touching gluten all day. If it’s a serious allergy, we would have to be careful.”

While a gluten-free menu is a still a ways off, new locations of Yolk aren’t. Construction is already underway inside Indianapolis’ Alexander Hotel, and Kastanis is “just looking” around cities like Dallas and Austin. But he’s not going away for long; other bustling neighborhoods like Wicker Park and Lincoln Park are on his radar. “We’re in a growth phase, but we definitely aren’t looking to leave Chicago behind,” he says. “It’s still our number one, and we want to keep a local feel.”

Kastanis credits his success to hard work, his strong management team, and a Chicago brunch crowd devoted to his five-egg omelets and Red Velvet French toast. “The surprising thing is how we’ve grown and continue to get better. It’s not easy—it’s a lot of hard work. But if you said in 2006 I would have five or six restaurants and be looking at other markets, I’d say you were crazy. Truthfully, it’s been like a dream.”