Despite a pandemic that refuses to go away, and a shortage of employees to tend bar and wait tables, there is no shortage of restaurant owners in Evanston looking to fill a vacant eatery with a new dining and drinking concept.

In downtown, for example, six restaurants have closed so far in 2021, but eight new ones have opened, mostly taking locations which had shut down.

Fourteen food establishments currently have applications for permits pending with the city.

Tapville Social, on Grove Street, used to be Bangers and Lace. The new restaurant/bar just opened with a concept that one of the company’s officials calls “the future of dining.”

Tapville Social has a “self-pouring draft system,” with 48 fill-the-glass-yourself taps of beer, cider, wine and sangria.

The serve-yourself taps at Tapville.

Customers are given a “pour pass,” which is linked to their credit cards. Drinks sell by the ounce.

Food orders are also tied to the passes, so no cash ever changes hands.

Operations Director Tony Studnicka says there are also servers and a full bar, along with the tap wall, so it’s the “best of both worlds,” he says, at a place which is “a restaurant first.”

And there’s no waiting around for the check. As a customer leaves, they place the pour pass in a box (tipping is possible) and head out. The credit card is charged.

“We’re not taking the hospitality out of dining,” Studnicka says. “We just want to make it easier for the guests.”

The shuttered Prairie Joe’s on Central.

A far more traditional, old-timey dining spot will soon fill the vacant location of Prairie Joe’s on Central Street.

Right now, the windows at Joe’s are covered and the door has a sign thanking customers for 30 years of business. Prairie Joe’s closed earlier this year.

Eric Young, owner of La Principal Mexican restaurant on Main Street, is taking over the location, but will keep the breakfast-and-lunch schedule.

“Central Street Diner” will be the name, with opening targeted for the spring. Young says he plans to “freshen up” the interior, and make the eatery a “modern take on the classic American diner.”

While many restaurants are still looking for workers, both Tapville and La Principal are seeing the shortage ease somewhat.

Tapville is fully staffed, its operations director says, and La Principal is also seeing an uptick in the number of applicants.

“I see the shortage easing,” owner Young notes.

And it’s not just Evanston which is seeing new restaurants open. Gina Speckman, executive director of Chicago’s North Shore Convention and Visitors Bureau, says more and more places are opening in the entire North Shore region.

“A takeaway from 2021,” she says, “is that more people want to eat outside the home.”

Speckman notes that restaurants are “more strategic” with their hours. In downtown Evanston, for example, many restaurants are still not open for lunch, waiting for the return of downtown office workers. The hope there, she says, is for that to pick up after the first of the year.

Speckman also says not all restaurants are open seven days a week right now, but at least more of them are operating.

Some restaurants were only able to survive last winter by adding outdoor dining, with heaters, or igloos. But this winter, Speckman says, most facilities “are focusing on making their indoor dining area the best and safest possible” places to eat.

Outdoor dining in winter, she says, made more sense when indoor dining was banned or restricted.

There is one big “who knows” in all of this, and that’s COVID-19. Will there be more restrictions? Even in a highly-vaccinated community like Evanston, will customers avoid indoor activities if the new COVID variant has a big impact?

Running a restaurant is always a challenge, and dealing with the virus may just be one more thing to factor in long term, says Young.

“I think it’s the new normal for the foreseeable future,” he notes. “We’ll have to live with it.”

Jeff Hirsh joined the Evanston Now reporting team in 2020 after a 40-year award-winning career as a broadcast journalist in Cincinnati, Ohio.