Wilmette, News

55 percent reduction in proposed Small Cheval sign is not good enough for Wilmette commission

Proposal moves to Village Board with restaurant ownership ‘getting frustrated’

One of Wilmette’s most anticipated new businesses is still looking for a sign of what’s to come as it prepares to enter the village’s bustling downtown dining scene later this year. 

Wilmette’s Appearance Review Commission voted Monday, May 6, during its regular meeting to recommend denial of Small Cheval’s request for a variation to install a sign on the rooftop of its soon-to-be historic home along Wilmette Avenue. 

The split commission voted 4-2 against the proposal, casting its final decision on the restaurant’s signing plans that first appeared on its docket in early January of this year. Commissioners Jonathan Zee and Jeffery Saad voted in support while board chair Devan Castellano, and commissioners Richard Brill, Richard DeLeo and Douglas Johnson were the dissenters. 

Reviewed in January, Small Cheval’s original proposal called for three of the letters featured in the sign — which is proposed to showcase the restaurant’s name — to be 6 feet tall, as previously reported by The Record. The average size of the letters in the word “Small” would be 36 inches, while “Cheval” would be 42 inches, according to the details of the restaurant’s original proposal. 

Updated plans from Small Cheval that were presented on Monday significantly reduced the sign’s size, by about 55 percent overall, architect Corey Dunne, of the firm Dunne Kozlowski, told commissioners. The new proposal called for the sign to be just over 3 feet at its tallest point while also decreasing the overall length. 

Following the initial hearing with the Appearance Review Commission in early 2024, representatives from Small Cheval also appeared before Wilmette’s Historic Preservation Commission to further flesh out the details of proposed changes to the historic building as well as deliberate on a potential path forward for the sign. 

A schematic of the proposed exterior design of Small Cheval

Dunne said that discussions with the preservation commission related to the style and location of the sign ultimately led to an agreement that placing the sign on the face of the building was unfavorable because of a belief that it will distract from the historic architectural nature of the building. 

Restaurant officials did consider moving forward with a ground sign instead, Dunne noted, but added that “operationally and from a brand standpoint, it really didn’t work for ownership.”

The preservation commission requested that the sign be slightly lifted off the roof, which was included in Small Cheval’s pitch Monday night. Additionally, the commission did ask if the restaurant would drop the size even smaller or locate it off-center. 

“Our concern was if we went any smaller, it really would start to look out of place,” Dunne said. 

The key points of concern from the commission were once again the size and the scale of the sign. Commissioners also questioned how the sign would fit into downtown Wilmette’s landscape given that it would be notably larger than any other existing sign in the village center. 

“This is really going to stand out in Wilmette,” Brill said, later noting that, if approved, the sign would “far and away be the largest” in the area. “I cannot think of anything even remotely close in Wilmette,” he added. 

One point of reference that commissioners noted throughout their deliberations as an example was the sign at the nearby restaurant Pescadero. At the time of approval, the restaurant’s sign, which officials noted was approximately 18 inches in height, also required a variation. 

Small Cheval’s signage plans will now head to Wilmette’s Village Board with a negative recommendation from the commission. Officials noted during the meeting that trustees’ review of the proposal could come in late May. 

“This is really going to stand out in Wilmette. … (It would) far and away be the largest (sign in the area). I cannot think of anything even remotely close in Wilmette.” Richard Brill, Wilmette Appearance Review commissioner

Prior to the board’s vote, Dunne expressed some level of frustration on behalf of the restaurant’s ownership related to the inability to move plans forward after months of meeting. 

“They want to move forward … it’s getting to a point where (ownership is) getting frustrated,” he said. 

Last year, Small Cheval — a spinoff of renowned burger restaurant Au Cheval with several Chicago locations — announced that it had purchased the historic former train station, 1139 Wilmette Ave., from the Village of Wilmette, as first reported by The Record

At the time, it was occupied by the restaurant Depot Nuevo, which closed in August after owners Rob and Ann Garrison struck an agreement with Small Cheval representatives and decided to retire.

The building that will house the new restaurant is a local landmark that was built in 1874. Small Cheval ownership first targeted an opening in spring of this year, but that date has since been pushed back to “late summer,” according to a communication from the village. 

Greg Zinn, a representative of Hogsalt Hospitality, the acclaimed restaurant group that manages Au Cheval, told commissioners during the May 6 meeting that Small Cheval’s team is putting notable effort into the interior of the building as well. 

“I think it’s going to be wonderful to bring into the village, said Zinn, who is a Wilmette resident. 

“I believe in the design. I think it’s going to be incredible and I wish that we could show you what the inside is going to be like but we are really paying homage to what the building used to be.”

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martin carlino
Martin Carlino

Martin Carlino is a co-founder and the senior editor who assigns and edits The Record stories, while also bylining articles every week. Martin is an experienced and award-winning education reporter who was the editor of The Northbrook Tower.

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