Wilmette, News

Signing Up: Wilmette Village Board backs Small Cheval’s sign that came with negative recommendation

Owners of the Small Cheval restaurant proposed for the former Depot Nuevo at 1139 Wilmette Ave. can breathe a sigh of relief and plan for a construction start within the next few weeks now that village trustees have approved revised plans for the sign they plan to erect on the front of the restaurant’s peaked roof.

Their unanimous vote at the board’s Tuesday, June 11, meeting marks the final hurdle for the restaurant’s owners, although Community Development Director John Adler said Wednesday that a second and final vote board vote should be on its June 25 meeting agenda. 

With their decision, trustees rejected a May 6 recommendation from the village’s Appearance Review Commission to deny the restaurant’s request for a sign variation. Commissioners who had first reviewed the plans in January but held off their decision until May denied the request in a 4-2 vote, in part because several felt the sign would still be too large to fit in with other downtown business signage.

The variation is required because Wilmette zoning does not allow roof signs. 

Architect Corey Dunne presents Small Cheval’s proposal on Tuesday, June 11.

The restaurant has been anticipated ever since owners of the business — a spinoff of the popular Au Cheval restaurant owned by Brendan Sodikoff and his restaurant company, Hogsalt Hospitality, that opened in 2012 in Chicago’s West Loop — bought the historic building from the village in 2023. It previously received a special use permit and has already pulled most of its necessary construction permits, Adler told trustees Tuesday night.

The owners cannot relocate or demolish the building, which has historic importance as an actual train depot built in 1874, without prior approval from the village. Wilmette also has a right to refusal should the new owners seek a buyer in the future, Village Manager Mike Braiman said at the time.

When the Appearance Review Commission first took the case in January, Small Cheval’s original proposal called for three of the letters featured in the sign 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. 

Tuesday, architect Corey Dunne from Dunne Kozlowski said his firm and the restaurant owners worked extensively with the Historic Preservation Commission to amend their plans. The overall size was cut by about 55 percent. That included shrinking its length by about 40 percent, he said. When the Historic Preservation Commission met in March, it approved the smaller proposal. 

According to information from the appearance review meeting, the sign’s height would be just over three feet at its tallest, the word “Cheval,” while the “Small” would be proportionately shorter. 

The depot is a historical structure in Wilmette that the Village sold to Small Cheval representation.

On Tuesday, only Trustee Gina Kennedy expressed any misgivings about the sign. 

“I just don’t like roof signs, but I have a hard time voting against it,” she said. “I’m skeptical of whether it’s needed. … At the same time, this is somewhat unique because the peaked roof and patio makes it difficult to have a sign.

Kennedy also expressed worry about setting any precedent for future businesses to ask for roof signs.

In response to questions posed prior to the meeting by Trustee Kathy Dodd, Adler said his department hasn’t found businesses in town have roof signs or pitched roofs. Dodd said it would be unfair to prevent the restaurant from putting the sign up, since every other business in the downtown area did have other types of signage, including wall signs.  

“I want to reiterate to you how excited people in the community are to have you come,” Dodd said.

“We’re thrilled to have you, and the renderings look fantastic,” Board President Senta Plunkett said, adding, “This is probably the most beloved structure in Wilmette.” 

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Kathy Routliffe

Kathy Routliffe reported in Chicago's near and North Shore suburbs (including Wilmette) for more than 35 years, covering municipal and education beats. Her work, including feature writing, has won local and national awards. She is a native of Nova Scotia, Canada.

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