On the recommendation of a buddy of mine at one of my dealers in the Chicago area, he told me to head over to the Candlelite, a long-time neighborhood bar/restaurant located on N. Western Ave. in the Rogers Park neighborhood on the city's far north side. "They have surprisingly good pizza there," he told me a couple three years ago. Over a year ago, I went there one evening to try their food and the place was packed with no parking in the immediate area. But I was still determined to try the place at some point. It was just after I finished up at one of my dealers in Chicago one recent early evening that I stopped at - and was able to get into - the Candlelite.
The Candlelite has been around since 1950 when the Dileo family opened the supper club/roadhouse-style restaurant just a couple blocks south of Evanston's border with Chicago. Even before Prohibition took effect in 1919, Evanston was a dry town for alcohol as an agreement with Northwestern University said that alcohol could not be served within 4 miles of campus. Because of this law, many Evanstonians and students at Northwestern had to go outside the city limits to get a drink. The Candlelite thrived in the 50's and 60's thanks to Evanston's city laws on no liquor sales. Even after Evanston's prohibition on alcohol ended in 1972, the Candlelite had already built a healthy and loyal clientele who kept coming back for their pizza, homemade French onion soup, and chicken wings.
The Dileo family - who had interests in other restaurants and banquet facilities around the city - continued to run the Candlelite with sister Jean Dileo taking over the business in 1979. After running it for 15 years, she decided it was time to sell. Her cousin, John Enright, had graduated in the mid-80's from the University of Iowa with a degree in film and was making commercials in the Chicago area while working part time at the Candlelite. Enright decided that working in a restaurant was much more fun than making commercials, so he bought the place in 1994.
Trying to raise a family and run a bar that was slowly deteriorating due to neglect was weighing heavily on Enright. After six years of running the place on his own, Enright enlisted the help of Tom O'Malley, a former financial advisor who found that his true calling was running bars. O'Malley joined Enright at the Candlelite in 2000, but the two soon discovered that they both had the same dream - to open a restaurant in downtown Evanston. In 2002, O'Malley, Enright and another partner opened Bluestone, an American-style known for their upscale pub fare, comfort food, and pizza.
Rather than putting money into the decaying infrastructure at the Candlelite, Enright decided to shutter the place in 2002. It sat empty, much to the dismay of loyal Candlelite customers who missed the place, for a couple years. Then in 2004, a group of four investors including Pete Vernon and Chicago Athletic Clubs owner Pat Cunningham bought the Candlelite and put in tens of thousands of dollars sprucing up the place and reopening the restaurant resurrecting much of the food on the original menu. Today, Pete Vernon is still an owner along with co-owner Pat Fowler.
It's tough to miss the Candlelite while driving along N. Western Avenue south of Howard with its large 50's style neon sign sticking out from the building. (see map) I was able to find parking on a side street just around the corner from the Candlelite on this visit. It was early, around 5:20 or so when I walked into the place. A handful of early diners were already there.
You would have to classify the Candlelite a sports bar as there are a number of flat screen televisions hanging from the wall along with a lot of local sports memorabilia. The L-shaped establishment was open and roomy.
The Candlelite is also an official Chicago Blackhawks bar with all the televisions turned to the hockey match each time the team plays. One of the waitresses told me that the place can get pretty crazy in there when the Blackhawks are playing. I guessed that the night I had shown up to the place a year or so before was probably a night the Hawks were on TV.
I ended up seated at the bar in the center of the place and ordered up a Revolution Brewing Co. Anti-Hero IPA that they had on tap. The bartender asked if I was going to eat and he put a menu on the top of the bar for me to look through. I pretty much knew that I was going to order a pizza, but I wanted to see what else they had to offer.
It was pretty much what you would expect from a sports bar - but a sports bar that offered some upscale items on the menu. Their signature appetizers seemed to be either loaded French fries and tater tots with a choice of a red wine-garlic sauce; or fries and tots with a buffalo sauce and blue cheese; or loaded fries and tots with a melted cheddar cheese, chopped green onions, real bacon bits, and sour cream. They also a parmesan herb topping with a side of marinara sauce for their French fries and tater tots. All four of the toppings along with the fried potatoes sounded sinfully great.
They also had veggie or chicken quesadillas, barbecued brisket nachos, fried calamari, fried pickles and, of course, wings on the appetizer menu. And they also had poutine - fries topped with gravy, cheese curds, chopped bacon bits and scallions. I love good poutine when I can find it.
They had a couple three burgers and five or so sandwiches on the menu, but you could tell that their focus was on pizza. Thin crust pizza is their specialty, but last year Vernon and Fowler decided to offer something new - a rectangular pan pizza that originated in Detroit. While not calling it "Detroit-style" pizza on the menu, 10" X 14" pan pizza was offered with a choice of fresh toppings, as well as with a red or a white pizza sauce.
I was easy to work with that evening - I got my usual Italian sausage, pepperoni and mushroom pizza, the 10" size. Cut into party (or also called tavern) squares, it was loaded with fresh mushroom slices, pepperoni, and chunks of sausage. The cheese had somewhat caramelized on the top of the pizza while the edge had a burnt crispiness. The bartender had brought over a triumvirate of shaker jars containing grated parmesan cheese, ground oregano and crushed red peppers.
And the pizza was wonderful - the crust was crisp, but it wasn't overcooked. The toppings were fresh - especially the mushroom slices - and the sausage had a bit of a spicy taste. The pepperoni slices were spicy and salty giving the pizza a rousing affirmation from my "does it taste good with a beer?" test. The cheese was creamy - I guessed that they used a provolone cheese instead of mozzarella - and the pizza sauce was sweet and tangy. It was a perfect size for one person and I was pretty full when I finished the "honey pot" center piece of the pizza.
My friend couldn't have been more spot on about how good the pizza was at the Candlelite. What a great little neighborhood spot, too! Keep in mind that parking can be somewhat of a bear at times, and if there's a Blackhawks game on TV the place is likely to be packed. They have a good beer list, some interesting appetizers and their pizza is outstanding, as well. Even if you're not into sports, the Candlelite is a good place to go get a good thin-crust Chicago pizza.