Photograph by Drew Podo
When Ria Pell opened Ria’s Bluebird in 2000, she set out to make a welcoming and affordable breakfast spot in Grant Park. Memorial Drive had none of the buzz that it does now; developers hadn’t caught the intown bug yet. But Pell’s cooking combined with her larger-than-life personality brought her city-wide acclaim. Her restaurant became a community favorite because of its reasonable prices and diverse crowds. When Pell passed away in 2013, she left half of her ownership shares to manager Julie Pender, who has gone to great lengths to uphold Pell’s legacy. “I stick to her fundamentals, the Ria Rules,” Pender says. “She’s the perpetual boss here.”
Pender, who has worked at Ria’s for 13 years, took care to keep many of Pell’s favorite dishes exactly the same. The pancakes, which were among Ria’s most praised dishes, are still mixed in the same bowl. Despite the praise that the pancakes receive, Pender says that the recipe is so simple that anybody could make it at home, in theory. The ingredients, cake flour, buttermilk, butter, and vanilla, are all standard, but the secret to their success is the restaurant’s 16-year-old flat top grill. “We’ve had the flat top since we opened. It’s so seasoned that you can pretty much cook on it without oil,” Pender says. “It’s a beautiful, old albatross of equipment.” The restaurant sells an average 200 hundred orders of pancakes on most weekdays, with the numbers exceeding 350 on weekends.
Three years after Ria’s death, the restaurant is still thriving. “It was really important to Ria that anybody can come here and feel welcome,” Pender says. “She created a space that everybody wanted to be a part of. And that is still here.” Pender still recognizes customers she served over a decade ago. She knows customers who met their spouses at Ria’s and still come in every week with their kids.
Despite the restaurant’s reputation in the community, Pender is still worried about the restaurant’s place along the rapidly changing stretch of Memorial Drive. She worries new developments will drive out old-school landmarks like Ann’s Snack Bar. “Things change and you can’t prevent that,” Pender says. “But you can stake your claim, and we’ve staked our claim here on the corner.”