Helping his mother prepare meals for his 10 younger siblings created an appetite for cooking Tony Levy brought with him when he came to the U.S. from Jamaica in 1986 at the age of 27.
Thirty-two years later, he and Lenice, his wife of almost 18 years, are living his dream. They are enticing diners at their three-month-old Evanston restaurant Good2Go Jamaican Cuisine and Catering, 711 Howard St., with the food he once made for family.
The handsome restaurant and toothsome fare are the products of passion, experience and teamwork.
Mr. Levy settled in Skokie and Evanston upon arriving in this country. His future wife, who grew up in Chicago’s Hyde Park, was living in Evanston. Their paths converged when a client of Lenice’s hair stylist invited the two of them to a 50th birthday dinner. “We met in October and married in less than a year,” Ms. Levy says. “[Our wedding] was Sept. 1, 2001 – just days before 9/11.”
Ms. Levy had spent 20 years in corporate finance and sales. Mr. Levy was worn down from blue-collar work in what his wife terms “labor-intensive” jobs. He was suffering from a work injury when they began to consider starting their own business. “We did a lot of research,” Ms. Levy says. They also conferred with a business consultant, who advised, “Do something you know. You don’t want to have to rely on others.”
Ms. Levy says Mr. Levy’s passion for cooking and the fact that he is “very social” made a restaurant their logical choice. Besides, they say they believed there was a market for Jamaican food – a large Caribbean population on Chicago’s North Side and vacationers to the islands searching at home for the friendliness and quality food they experienced on holiday.
Pursuing a dream, Mr. Levy says, requires that “you take a great big leap and never look back.” Having zeroed in on the Rogers Park neighborhood for its diversity, the Levys rented a space on the Chicago side of Howard Street. Just across the street from their original eatery, opened in 2003, they have opened a second Good2Go.
“I was nervous,” Mr. Levy says. He remembers “the day they put in the [stove] hood – the most expensive piece of equipment. [It cost] $5,000-6,000,” he says, “and I knew I couldn’t turn back.”
He says they “learned a lot” in their successful years at that first version of Good2Go. So when a much larger space that had housed a garage and a storefront church came up for sale on the Evanston side of Howard Street, they were prepared to take another bold step: they bought the building.
As longtime Evanston residents whose two sons were Evanston Township High School graduates, the Levys say they are happy to have relocated to their hometown. “The City [of Evanston] supports the Howard Street corridor,” Ms. Levy says.
She was the interior designer for the project. The restaurant has two distinct spaces, the bar/lounge on the west side and a more formal dining room on the east. The bar has an industrial look; live reggae bands will be playing there on weekends, beneath a huge portrait of Bob Marley. Ms. Levy has commissioned the same artist to create a beach scene on an adjacent wall.
The east room, which can seat 100 or accommodate 160 standing guests, is rentable and fit for various size groups. The chair backs and banquettes are upholstered in bright fuchsia fabric. At once comfortable and sophisticated, it shows off well from the street. On a summer day, the garage door that is the entire front wall of the room can be raised and guests can be seated in the lounge chairs on the adjoining outdoor patio.
The new Good2Go has a more extensive menu than the original but is still focused on authentic regional cuisine. Mr. Levy is king of the kitchen and bar. Though no one is certain of the origin of the term “jerk” for Jamaica’s famous spice rub, the source of the piquant and smoky homemade jerk sauce at Good2Go is clear. It is Mr. Levy’s grandmother’s recipe, prepared with herbs and spices sourced from Jamaica. The sauce flavors the customer-favorite jerk chicken, as well as pork, shrimp and rib tips. Also on the menu are oxtail and extensive seafood offerings. Entrees come with rice, sweet fried plantain and flavorful steamed cabbage.
Tony Levy creates specialty drinks that capture the essence of the tropics in a glass – fresh vegetable juices like Jungle Juice, a blend of apple, ginger, celery and cucumber and island smoothies like Jamaica, a mix of strawberry, pineapple, papaya, banana, mango and honey.
The restaurant has been a joint venture from the start. Asked whether working with a spouse is a problem, Ms. Levy says, “Oh, it works so well. We have our designated responsibilities, and we respect that. If there ever is a conflict, we resolve it like any corporation would and end with a compromise.”
While Mr. Levy presides over the food and front of the house, Ms. Levy operates mostly behind the scenes. Her experience with goal setting and forecasting and her skills as a licensed Realtor with Dream Town serve her well in her work with human resources and finance.
The new Good2Go opened on Friday, April 13, but the Levys never feared the day would be unlucky. Ms. Levy says, “We are believers in God and His power; we don’t believe in superstitions. It turned out to be a magnificent day.”
After several months in their new space and years of experience with their first, they are not surprised to be keeping long hours. Ms. Levy estimates she works 12 hours a day. Mr. Levy says, “I’m here pretty much every day. If I’m not, my brain is.”
They have assembled a staff of around 15 – more than they expected to need – and have impressed on everyone their top priority: at Good2Go each guest must have a good experience – quality food and good service. That, the Levys say, requires that “everybody take ownership of every guest.”