Undertaking large-scale renovations is always risky in the restaurant industry, where margins are incredibly slim and being closed for significant time eliminates significant income. To do so at the tail end of a pandemic could be even riskier, but Yari Vargas, chef and owner of Casa Yari (3268 W. Fullerton Ave.), knew it was time for a fresh beginning.
Casa Yari has been open since 2013, and during its nine-year run, it has been a staple in the community, showcasing Yari’s Honduran and Puerto Rican heritage, with family recipes elevated by a modern flair. Yari grew up in Humboldt Park and subsequently raised her daughters in Logan Square, so when the space now housing Casa Yari became available in 2013, she knew it was a perfect fit.
“A lot of our neighbors and community have been here for 20-plus years, so our kids all grew up together,” Yari said. “The neighborhood has certainly changed, but it’s still special, and that’s why I wanted to open in Logan Square. This location was perfect because it’s right on the border of Logan and Humboldt, which is where my mom still lives today.”
Reopened Dining Room Calls For New Beginning
As time went on and the COVID-19 pandemic came with the extended closure of indoor dining, Yari’s once-beloved dining room no longer brought her, her team or her guests the same feeling of escape and energy it once had, she said.
“When we first opened eight years ago, the place was beautiful, but as time went on and COVID happened, the place started feeling depressed,” Yari said. “The lack of dine-in brought down the energy here.”
In March of 2020, Casa Yari immediately pivoted to being a take-out establishment, operating its own delivery service and doing its best to continue feeding the community. As closures dragged on for more than a year, the once-energetic establishment felt different.
“Even though I was cooking up a storm and trying to provide that escape with food and garnishes and everything, the surroundings didn’t feel as welcoming and energetic as the food was,” Yari said.
Yari knew it was time to close her doors for a brief time and create a new space that matched the flair and energy she brought to her cooking. And she knew the kind of environment she wanted to bring to the restaurant. “I wanted to have that tropical and Caribbean feel, of course, but the most important thing for me was providing an escape for my guests as well as myself and my staff,” Yari said.
Keeping The Old But Making It New
Casa Yari closed in December 2021 for a renovation initially expected to take six week. That was prolonged, as often happens with renovations, to 3 months. During that time, Yari partnered with a known event planner with whom she had worked on numerous events to design the updated space. The main inspiration for the renovations was the same as Casa Yari’s core mission: “I want to show off my culture!” Yari said. “It’s beautiful and heartwarming and has such a long history in the neighborhood. I want guests to feel like they’ve taken a plane to Honduras or Puerto Rico. If I’m transporting you with the food, I want the space to match.”
The new space immediately transports guests on arrival. Tropical plants hang from the ceiling, and a mural in the back of the restaurant depicts an indoor-outdoor kitchen Yari remembers fondly from her grandmother’s Honduras home. Even the bar is adorned with a roof inspired by Latin design elements. When paired with mirrors mimicking windows, this creates the feeling of sitting in Yari’s family backyard, anxiously awaiting one of her grandmother’s signature dishes.
That family connection drives Yari and can be found throughout the restaurant. Of course, Casa Yari translates to “Yari’s home,” and Yari aims to make guests feel like part of her family, as well. Make your way to the back wall, and you’ll see a photo collage of Yari’s family and those closest to her, especially people from the restaurant’s opening days.
Yari’s youngest daughter cooks up the restaurant’s renowned flan (featured on “Chicago’s Best“), and both daughters work as servers when available. A photo of Yari’s mother-in-law calls back to one of the chef’s biggest cooking inspirations, and a mural of her grandmother watches over the restaurant as if it is her own backyard.
Before renovations were complete, Yari’s parents had one last finishing touch to provide: a new stove, complete with four additional burners and two convection ovens. Gone are the days of running a dinner service with a single working oven.
Casa Yari was finally ready for that fresh start.
Casa Yari’s Energetic Reopening Weekend
The restaurant completed renovations and officially reopened to the public on Feb. 25. Even Yari couldn’t have predicted the outpouring of support she and her team would receive, she said.
“It was so beautiful,” Yari said. “We had a flower vase on the bar that we hadn’t even been able to fill yet, and if you look at it now, we were able to build a whole bouquet from flowers our guests brought us. We were all truly touched.”
The energy of the restaurant refresh extended to the rest of the staff. Yari made sure to renovate and repaint the kitchen to provide a more welcoming work environment, and it showed in the energy and passion her team exhibited that weekend. It’s a testament to Yari that her entire staff waited out the three-month closure and came back to continue working in her restaurant.
Weekend brunch also resumed in March, and an exciting new mocktail program has been added to the menu. Because the restaurant is BYOB, guests are welcome to turn these offerings into cocktails if they so choose.
“We’re never going to be boring,” Yari said, “so seeing the energy of this past weekend was truly special. We’ve all dealt with so much these past few years, and to see my staff feel appreciated and empowered again was amazing. It felt like a new beginning.”
Longtime patrons can still find traces of the old space, paying homage to the restaurant’s opening days, but this is an exciting new beginning for Casa Yari.
You can also find Yari, along with a plethora of Chicago’s top women chefs and restaurateurs, at a March 8 event held by the Let’s Talk Womxn collaboration of women restaurateurs, celebrating International Women’s Day. Purchase those tickets here.
Featured photo: Marisa Klug-Morataya