Chicago’s Uncommon Ground

There’s nothing common about the two Uncommon Ground restaurants in Chicago.

by John D. Ivanko

There’s nothing common about the two Uncommon Ground restaurants in Chicago. At this urban eatery, you often savor what’s grown on the roof of their Devon St. restaurant, which opened its doors in 2007 in the Edgewater neighborhood, or from the “sidewalk farm” at their Clark St. restaurant, which opened in 1991 in the Wrigleyville neighborhood. We knew we were in for a treat when we visited owner, Helen Cameron, who with her husband, Michael, have transformed what the taste of fresh and in-season ingredients means to them. It often involves a walk up the stairs to their roof to harvest the ingredients used in their dishes.

Earning the distinction of the first certified-organic rooftop farm in the United States, Uncommon Ground features on their menu what they raise on the roof and curbside planters at their Edgewater restaurant: a wide selection of vegetables, small fruits and herbs, as well as honey from their bee hives. What they don’t grow themselves, they source from sustainable farmers in the region, whose names often find their way onto the menu.

Enjoy these photos from our recent visit to Uncommon Ground. Like most “ecopreneurial” enterprises, it’s not about competition, but cooperation and collaboration. Just about everything they did to create their award-winning restaurants can be reviewed on their website. So next time you’re in Chicago, consider Uncommon Ground a culinary attraction worth a taste. Tours of the rooftop farm are offered every Wednesday during the summer months. (Check their website for details.)

Local Cuisine

Uncommon Ground Menu

Uncommon Ground is serious about serving freshly harvested ingredients from their rooftop or various growing beds around the restaurant to serve in meals. According to Helen Cameron, more than 1,070 pounds of food, valued at $5,600, were harvested in 2012 on their rooftop farm.

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Uncommon Ground Sweet Potato Fries

After our tour, we sat down for a taste, starting off with an appetizer of sweet potato fries with goat cheese fondue.

Uncommon Ground - Chilaquiles

Following the suggestion of our convivial waitress, we tried the chilaquiles, prepared with their house-made chorizo pork sausage, egg, chihuahua cheese, shredded lettuce and sour cream atop tortilla chips.

Uncommon Ground Root Crop Risotto

Seasonal cuisine sings a delicious song here. This root-crop risotto manages to capture the brilliant colors of beets and uses some of the salad greens still being harvested on the rooftop farm. Their creative cuisine smacks of local, seasonal, organic and Fair Trade-certified ingredients presented with an artist’s touch and a taste that captures executive chef Matt Holmes’ own philosophy.

“It has always been about the food to me,” Chef Holmes says. “Presentation is key, but flavor and dining experience are everything.” Check out Chef Holmes’ pork osso buco recipe he shared at the end of this post.

Sustainability at the Forefront

Uncommon Ground Tables

The Camerons took care in nearly every aspect of their restaurant’s green design. Tables, host stand and fireplace surrounds were created by Horrigan Urban Forest Products from downed trees in nearby Jackson Park. The wood scraps from the table-making process were repurposed into doors and the mantle around the restaurant’s cozy fireplace.

Art at Uncommon Ground

Rotating artist exhibits adorn the walls. Permanent artwork, including hand-blown glass lamps and glass or tile mosaics, were also created by local artists. Adjacent to the dining area is both a bar and performance area where live entertainment takes center stage most evenings.

Uncommon Ground Owner

Water catchment tanks are used to irrigate plants. Inside the restaurant, Energy Star-certified appliances are everywhere; lighting features LEDs. They even operate their personal diesel Jeep on biodiesel made from the waste fryer oil collected at the restaurant. A photovoltaic system to partially power the restaurant is currently in the pipeline.

Farming Fresh Ingredients

Planter Boxes

At the Clark St. restaurant’s “sidewalk farm,” where basil, tomatoes and beets grow in planter boxes right next to where you savor some of their seasonal dishes, the restaurant’s urban farmers harvest about 2 pounds per square foot of this 70 square feet of growing space. And over at the Edgewood restaurant, the planter boxes pictured here line the parking area.


Even in November, their rooftop and container plantings provide fresh salad greens or radishes. A full-time farmer, Jen Rosenthal, manages the farm along with a part-time farm director and numerous interns during the busy spring and summer growing season.


Uncommon Ground 

The rooftop farm is 0.015 of an acre, as Helen Cameron likes to say. Five, 4- by 10-foot solar collectors on their roof heat enough hot water to meet about 70 percent of the restaurant’s hot water needs.

Uncommon Ground Owner 

Owner, Helen Cameron, in front of her Edgewood neighborhood Uncommon Ground restaurant in November. “You won’t see a tomato on our menu until next summer,” she says with a smile.

Recipe: Pork Osso Bucco
Recipe courtesy Matt Holmes, Executive Chef at Uncommon Ground

Yield: 4 servings


  • 4 pork shanks
  • 1 yellow onion, chopped
  • 2 large carrots, chopped
  • 4 ribs celery, chopped
  • 2 quarts chicken broth
  • 1 cup whole-grain mustard, divided
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 ounce fresh thyme
  • 6 cloves garlic
  • cornstarch slurry (3 T. cornstarch and 6 T. water mixed to a paste)
  • 1/4 tsp. salt
  • 1/4 tsp. pepper

Preheat oven to 325 degrees F.

Dust pork shanks in flour and brown in hot sauté pan. Transfer shanks to oven-proof pot and add carrots, celery, onion, thyme, bay leaf, garlic, chicken broth and half of mustard. Bake, covered, for approximately 4 hours or until meat pulls easily from bone.

Gently remove shanks and strain braising liquid into sauce pot. Add mustard to liquid and use cornstarch slurry to thicken to desired consistency. Season with salt and pepper.

Serve with gnocchi (see recipe below), sauerkraut and sauce.

Recipe: Pretzel Gnocchi

Yield: 4 servings, with some left over


  • 3 pounds russet potatoes
  • 1 cup flour
  • 1 cup ground pretzels
  • 1 egg
  • 1/4 tsp. salt
  • 1/4 tsp. pepper


Bake potatoes and peel while hot. Process through food mill onto clean table. Make well and add eggs, flour and ground pretzels. Combine ingredients together until dough forms. Adjust with more flour if necessary. Roll dough into log shape. Using bench knife, cut dough into small pieces. Poach gnocchi in boiling water until they float and transfer to bowl of ice water. Sear gnocchi in non-stick pan with butter, and serve with just pork and sauerkraut. The recipe will make more than needed. After the gnocchi are poached, they may be frozen.

Savoring the good life,

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